Be Perfect!

12th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Adrian and Natalia and 33 companions of Nicomedia (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 19:16-26

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Especially in the Old Testament, the understanding of wealth and poverty is different than what we hear today both in secular culture and even from Christians. It’s important to keep this in mind to rightly understand the events in today’s Gospel.

While the modern concern, for example, with “income inequality,” is not absent in the Scriptures, the fact that some are rich and others poor is not taken as inherently unjust. Rather a person’s economic condition is seen as reflecting the will of God for that person.

This doesn’t mean–in either case–that my economic condition determines my moral standing in the presence of God. While God makes some rich and others poor, all are bound by the same obligation to keep the commandments as Jesus reminds the rich young man.

Additionally, to say with the Old Testament that wealth is a blessing doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its own moral obligations and dangers. With wealth comes the responsibility to use wealthy wisely.

Those who have more have a heavier obligation to care for others; not one’s own parents and children but the poor as well. As we hear in today’s Gospel, fidelity to these specific obligations–to act justly, to love mercy “and to walk humbly” with God (see Michah 6:8)-is the start of perfection.

Listen again to the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man. In response to the man’s question “what must I do to be saved?” Jesus says simply and directly that he must keep the commandments.

It is only when the young man wishes “to justify himself” that Jesus invites him to live by a higher standard. While his salvation is not in question, he is still lacking. He can be perfect if only he is willing to do what perfection requires.

And what must he do? What does perfection require? The man must sell all that he has, give the profit to the poor and to follow Jesus as His disciple.

In saying this, Jesus is not calling into question the moral goodness of wealth. But what He is doing is highlighting an Old Testament concern about wealth

Too easily, wealthy can be used to buy illusory independence from God and neighbor. “Those who trust in their riches will fall,” we read in Proverbs (11:28, NIV) “but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” Likewise, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).

The question for my life then becomes this: What is it in my life that keeps me separated from God and neighbor?

For the rich young man in the Gospel, it was his many possessions but what it is for me? The specific command of our Lord to the young man is helpful here.

Jesus doesn’t condemn wealth as such but He does challenge the man to put his wealth at the service of others. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

And so the question for me becomes, what am I holding on to that can be put at the service of others? What am I holding on to that keeps me from drawing closer to Jesus Christ by keeping me separated from you? What are the areas of my life where I think God is absent and where my will rather than His will is sovereign?

The other thing about wealth is that it is often used to buy the appearance of respectability. Put slightly differently, what in my life do I use to earn the favor of others rather than the favor of God?

Or how do I use you to bolster my own self-image rather put the gifts God has given me at the service of your flourishing and sanctification?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All of us can be like the rich young man. We can all hold on to things that we use to justify our separation from God, our indifference to those in need and our pursuit of worldly success at the expense of the Kingdom of God.

The solution to this is not to pretend that our wealth isn’t wealth. It is rather to make a conscience and consistent effort to put our wealth–material, intellectual, or social–at the service of the Kingdom of God.

Today, Jesus calls each of us to perfection. He calls each of us to take that which keeps us from Him and put it the service of God and of our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Poverty of the Son

Sunday, January 7, 2018 (December 25, 2017, OS): The Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ; The Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

6887711922_19d97768b5_bChrist is Born!

Poverty, economists remind us, is always relative. We need to avoid the temptation of thinking of poverty only in monetary terms. Limiting poverty to merely the absence of material wealth, we risk overlooking the fact that it is in the nature of human beings to be poor.

What I mean by this is that, in the beginning, when God “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7), He created Adam in need. We see this in the Hebrew word translated as “living being” or sometimes “living flesh,” nép̄eš a word that connotes “neediness.” It is sometimes used to describe things like a flute or the throat, things that function–are only themselves if you will–because they are empty.

As it comes from the hand of God, it is in Adam’s nature to be poor.

Far from being a hardship, this original poverty means that all that humanity has, all that Adam and all of his descendants have, we have as a gift of God. My natural talents, my spiritual gifts, my family, and my very existence all these are God’s gift to me even as all that you have is likewise His gift to you.

When in the hymnography of the Church we hear that the Son becomes poor for our sake. This isn’t primary referring to material wealth. If Jesus was born in a palace with the Theotokos lying in a bed of finest linen, attended by the best physicians and with midwives who washed the Newborn Child with water poured from vessels of gold, we would still say that the Son was born in poverty.

The simple reason for this is that to be human means to be empty or if you will to be poor. And while Adam rejects his own poverty, his own radical dependence on God, in the Incarnation the Son freely embraces all this “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Creed.

In the faith of the Church, humanity’s poverty is a fitting vehicle for the revelation of God. Our poverty reflects the supra-abundance of the divine nature.

And this, in turn, means that Jesus not only reveals the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves. To say that humanity is created in the image of God means that we are created according to the pattern of Jesus Christ Who is Himself the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” St Paul goes on to say of Jesus that

…by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV).

In becoming Man, the Son doesn’t cease to be God, He doesn’t cease to be the one through Whom all things are created and in Whom all “all things are held together.” Rather, in taking on our humanity, the Son takes on our poverty, our dependence on God. And as we see in the events of Holy Week, He also takes on our vulnerability to our indifference and cruelty.

It is God’s embrace of poverty that troubles “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him.” St John Chrysostom says that Herod and Jerusalem are troubled because like the Hebrew children in the desert they are in the grip of “idolatrous affections.” Once again they are more inclined toward “the fleshpots of bondage” than the offer of that “new freedom” that allows them to cry out “Abba! Father!”

Chrysostom goes on to say that Herod and all of Jerusalem “were on the point of having everything going their way.” Even though “they knew nothing” yet about the Incarnation, if they only “formed their judgments … on the basis of self-interest,” the fact that the mighty Persians came to worship this Newborn King should have strengthened their faith in God and their hope for liberation from Roman tyranny. That they were troubled the saint says means that their hearts were dull and marred by envy, (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily, 6.4 in ACCS: NT vol Ia: Matthew 1-13, pp. 22-23).

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” this same envy that often mars our own spiritual lives.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” we are tempted to prefer the passing riches of man to the poverty of God.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” like Adam, we are troubled because we reject the poverty that the Son willingly embraces.

And yet, for all that we fail, there is hope. As I said a moment ago, Jesus not only reveals the Father to us but us to ourselves. We see simultaneously in the Face of Jesus both God the Father and our own deepest identity.

To embrace the poverty of the Son doesn’t mean to become materially destitute. Rather it means to put all that we have at the service of glorifying God and reconciling humanity to the Father and with itself

As Orthodox Christians living in America, we are members of a painfully small community. As a new mission, we are the smallest Orthodox community in the city of Madison.

But given our location on the Isthmus, we have been given the great blessing of being at the heart of not only Madison but of the whole state of Wisconsin. God has set us aside as witness of His love to the most powerful voices in our city, our state and really in the nation. In calling us, God has blessed us and will continue to bless us if we remain faithful.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the required fidelity consists merely in this: to imitate the willing poverty of the Newborn Christ Child.

Christ is born!

+Fr Gregory