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

Neither With Fear Nor Contempt

Tuesday, March 27 (O.S., March 14), 2018: Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Benedict of Nursia († 543); New Hieromartyr Priest Basil († 1943); Holy Hierarch Theognostus, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia († 1353); Right-believing Great Prince Rostislav-Michael of Kiev († 1167); St. Euschemon the Confessor and Bishop of Lampsacus (9th C); Theodore – Kostroma Icon of the Mother of God (1613).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 49:6-10
Vespers: Genesis 31:3-16
Vespers: Proverbs 21:3-21

We have throughout our reflections on the Lenten readings seen that the Old Testament values wealth and power as morally good. This makes some Christians uncomfortable. They see the acquisition of wealth as tantamount to avarice and the pursuit of power as exploiting the weak.

These and other temptations are real and should be guarded against. At the same time, we can’t be indifferent to the harm by those who don’t understand the uses and limitations of wealth and power and so think Christians should have nothing to do with either.

Isaiah reminds us the blessings God has given the Jewish people are so that they can fulfill their vocation to be “a light to the nations.” God’s material blessings as much as His spiritual blessings are bestowed on Israel so that “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

We can’t pursue wealth and power for their own sake. When we do, they become idols. The Old Testament is clear on this point. When we situate the Old Testament’s teaching on wealth and power within this context, we see that the right use of wealth and power preparations for the Gospel.

We can’t simply dismiss wealth and power as if they had no positive role to play in salvation. How much harm has been done, how much good has been left undone, by well-meaning Christians who simply didn’t understand how to use money or to exercise authority?

Look at the example of Jacob. God teaches him how to deal with his dishonest father-in-law.

Laban is frankly a cheat. He is willing to harm Jacob and so his own daughters in pursuit of wealth. Rather than having Jacob deliver a sermon, or stand passively and be cheated, God engages in a little sharp dealing.

Every time Laban changes which goats Jacob will receive as his wages, God changes the outcome. When Laban tells Jacob, “’The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.”

God impoverishes Laban as punishment for trying to cheat Jacob.

Solomon is clear. The wise man knows how to use wealth and exercise authority not simply for his own sake but for the sake of others. “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. … He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard. … He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor” both in the eyes of God and neighbor.

Christians can’t be either afraid or contemptuous of wealth and power. We must rather learn to acquire and use them in ways that are pleasing to God and to advance the Gospel.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

In Wisdom We Find Life

Tuesday, March 6 (OS February 21) 2018: Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent; Venerable Timothy of Symbola in Bithynia († 795); ✺ Holy Hierarch Eustathius, Archbishop of Antioch († 337); Holy New Hieromartyrs Priests Alexander, Daniel, and Gregory († 1930); New Hieromartyrs Priest Constantine and Deacon Paul († 1938); New Martyr Olga († 1939); Holy Hierarch George, Bishop of Amastris on the Black Sea († 802-811); Holy Hierarch John the Scholastic, Patriarch of Constantinople († 577); Holy Hierarch Zacharias, Patriarch of Jerusalem († 633); Holy Hieromartyr Severian, Bishop of Scythopolis († 452); “Kozel’shchina” Icon of the Mother of God (1881).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 9:9-10:4
Vespers: Genesis 7:1-5
Vespers: Proverbs 8:32-9:11

If God is not my sanctuary, than anything I build will fail.

This is the lesson of today’s reading from Isaiah. Though Ephraim and Samaria build with “bricks” and “dressed stones” all their works crumble. As we’ve seen before, without wisdom, wealth–in all its forms–can’t and won’t last.

The devastation that Isaiah says God will visit on the unwise is horrifying. He will take no delight in the strength and promise of the young and “no compassion on their fatherless and widows.” But who are these “godless … evildoer[s]” whose mouths speak nothing but the “folly” that “there is no God” (see Psalm 14:1)?

They aren’t simply unbelievers; Isaiah isn’t castigating atheists. His complaint is against those who use their wealth and power to harm others.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!

It is those who are indifferent to their neighbor’s suffering as well as the predatory that God condemns. Against them “his anger is not turned away and his hand is stretched out still.”

St John Chrysostom reminds us that when I read passages like these, I shouldn’t think God’s anger is like mine. My anger is often the fruit of wounded pride or maybe fear. Even when it is justified, my anger is a mix of pure and impure motives.

God’s angry, Chrysostom says, is motivated by His “tender care” and His “loving-kindness” for us. The punishment He inflicts is not done to avenge wounded honor but, like the physician’s painful remedies, meant to heal us from sin.

I need to understand that while wealth in all its forms is a blessing, it has limits. And, in a fallen world, I am prone to misuse wealth even as I am all the other good things God gives me.

My misuse of wealth stands in stark contrast to Noah’s right use.

Reading about Noah building the ark and gathering the animals, it’s easy to get so taken up by the story that we overlook the immense investment of material and intellectual capital the ark requires. It must be large enough not only for Noah’s whole family but for all the animals and birds it will shelter for months. The ark must also withstand the “forty days and forty nights” of high winds and the driving rains that “will blot out from the face of the ground” all life.

Noah isn’t simply wealthy, he is wise. His wisdom extends not only to the things of God. It also embraces the myriad practical details of planning and executing a massive building project.

This is why Solomon says that if we seek wisdom we’ll find not only salvation in the next life but happiness in this life. Our happiness will come because divine wisdom isn’t limited to the things of God. There is an unapologetically practical dimension to wisdom.

Wisdom builds “her house,” mixes “her wine, … set[s] her table.” Wisdom teaches us how to take pleasure in the things of this life, to accomplish practical tasks and to be hospitable. And all this Wisdom does in such a way that we not only remember the life to come but are prepared for this life through the myriad practical details of daily life.

“Give instruction to a wise man,” Solomon says “and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning.” Yes, “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” But as Solomon makes clear and Noah illustrates, insight is both spiritual and practical each in its proper measure.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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