|Homily 23rd Sunday after Pentecost The Good Samaritan|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a question that we may ask ourselves everyday because the answer is so important to who and what we are as Orthodox Christians. The answer will touch on the very question of what is eternal life…and it will give us a picture of how we are to be in this world. The answer to the question is twofold and from the second part of the answer comes another question whose answer also defines what it is to be a Christian. When this Gospel passage comes up most people pay more attention to the question that prompts the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but the initial question and answer bear equal scrutiny.
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” asks a lawyer of the Lord. Jesus asks a question Himself, knowing the intentions of the Lawyer to test Him and knowing that the Scriptures of the Old Testament provide the answer. The Lawyer answers: ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 And He (the Lord) said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
Part one of the answer ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ sounds simple enough…but is it really that easy? It’s easy to say, but is it really easy to do? Do we really want to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind? What does that look like? First, I should say, it will look different for each person since each person is unique and has his or her own way of being…but it will also carry a similarity about it because we are all human beings and, more important, it is the same God that we strive to love….and this is a crucial point: it is the same God that we are all called to love.
As many in the parish have probably figured out by now, the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel is one of my favorite parts of Scriptures. It is a distillation of the entire Gospel and indeed of our own purpose on earth. In particular, I am fond of verse 3 which says: “3 And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The Lawyer has asked how we inherit eternal life. Our Lord in Chapter 17 tells us what eternal life is: knowing God the Father…not knowing about Him…but knowing Him and Jesus Christ who was sent by Him.
So we find that the first part of the way to eternal life, which is knowing God, is to love Him with every fiber of our being and strength. Does that mean that we must go off and become a monk or nun on a mountain top somewhere and do nothing but go to Church and pray constantly and work for the Lord, keeping the Lord in mind at all times? No. Not everyone is called to be a monk…but some are. Nor is there space in all the monasteries or mountaintops for everyone. To the rest of it, though, the answer is yes. In everything we do and say we are called to remember that we are united to the Lord. In everything we do and say we are called to remember the Lord. I, who have forgotten which day of the week it was, am called to constantly remember the Lord in all I do and think. We all are. That is a pretty daunting task. It sounds impossible….but it is most emphatically not impossible. This is one of the reasons we read the lives of the Saints. The lives of the Saints remind us that ordinary people can find God and live lives of holiness and constant remembrance of God. We are also reminded that it is not a one-way street. We have a God who loves us…indeed who loved us first and more than we love Him. We are not like the ancient pagan Greek philosophers who believed that man could love God but that God could not return that love. God’s love for us was a scandal to the Greek philosophers! No, we have a God who loves us as we heard in the epistle:
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
God brings us up to Himself and makes us alive in Christ. If we are truly alive in Christ and united to Him…how can we not keep Him in mind constantly?
If you listen closely to some of the prayers of the Priest that are not said as loudly but are actually personal prayers for the priest’s own salvation and strengthening during the service, you will hear the priest ask for forgiveness of his own sins and for the “ignorance of the people.” In the Orthodox world ignorance does not mean just not knowing about something, or not having the right information about something as we would say in the secular world, rather it refers to an “illness of the heart” as one contemporary father puts it. This ignorance is the heart’s ignorance of God. Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus puts it this way, “….this lack of direct experience of God renders human beings incapable of knowing what it means to live apart from God. Consequently, they are not conscious of how abysmal their deprivation and predicament is.” (quoted as “Fr. Maximos in The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides) In other words, we do not know God, though we may know a little about Him.
Eternal life, though, is knowing God as our Savior tells us. If our heart is ignorant of God, then we may not realize how much we are missing. We may feel something missing in our lives, but not know how to pinpoint it. If we do not understand our poverty, then we may not seek the riches that are our inheritance with all the vigor that we could…we may not seek the Lord with the necessary effort…we would not feel the need. This is one of Satan’s greatest traps for us. He doesn’t want us to be united to the Lord, so he works on our ignorance and distracts us from Him. He may distract us with entertainments, with luxury, with power, with politics, with any number of passions and vices….or even with virtuous things (one of the greatest deceptions we can tell ourselves is “I’m a good person. Why do I need to go to confession? Why do I need to go to Church? Why do I need to be a Christian?”). Our intellects get, as the fathers say, scattered and concentrated on external things and not the Lord.
Coupled with this ignorance of God in the heart, is forgetfulness of God, which is also a fruit of the distractions that the devil throws our way. The heart, the center of our being, forgets the Lord and forgets to be in a prayerful state. We have been called as part of our love of the Lord to pray without ceasing…which again is hard work (and is worthy of a myriad of sermons in and of itself. We will have to leave some of this to another day).
In everything we do, say, and think, we are called to strive to remember the Lord. We fall in this constantly, but as is human nature, we are given the ability to get back up again and start over or where we left off. God is merciful and mercifully patient with us. He will strengthen us in our love; He will guide our prayers and teach us. In our faith, this striving to know God is an attempt on our part to move away from an intellectual idea about God to knowing Him. Metropolitan Athanasios says, “Faith becomes Love itself. The Creed actually means ‘I live in a union of love with God.’ This is the path of the saints.” He goes on to say that the saints possess a faith that is unafraid of death, war, illness or anything else of this world. The saints are beyond all ambitions of the world: money, fame, power, safety. “Such persons,” he says, “transcend the idea of God and enter into the experience of God.” This is what I meant when I said that those who give themselves up wholly to God will look different in their lives because each is unique in his personhood and manner of being, but each will look the same as well since they are all united to God who is love. As we have been told perfect love casts out all fear, therefore the lack of fear in the face of worldly troubles is one of the signs of those united to Christ. This is part one of the answer that the Lawyer gave to the Lord: ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind…’
Part two of his answer was: “and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” For the Church Fathers, this love of neighbor is directly caused by the first love, which is love of God. One who loves God with his whole being will also love his neighbor (and we have learned from the parable of the Good Samaritan that all people are our neighbors…). The love we have for God engenders our love for neighbor. We grow in our love for God by prayer and constant remembrance of Him in all things that we do. One of the means that the Church has for constant remembrance of God and prayer without ceasing is the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” When we keep this prayer on our lips or in our minds it will move to our heart and can by the Grace of God become self-activating…that is even as the intellect is taking care of everyday things, the heart does not cease from prayer. Elder Joseph the Hesychast wrote eloquently about this process (and this is a man who only had an elementary school education):
When Grace is energized in the heart of the one who prays, then the love of God floods his entire being to such an extent that he may not be able to take more. Then this love is transferred to the love of the world and the human person. His love becomes so powerful that he asks to take upon himself all the suffering and unhappiness of the others so that they themselves may be relieved. He suffers with those who are in suffering even for the suffering of animals, so much so that he sheds bitter tears when he becomes aware of their pain. These are attributes of Love. But you must keep in mind that it is prayer that energizes them and causes them. That is why those who have advanced in the prayer [that is, the Jesus Prayer] never stop praying for the World. (quoted in Mountain of Silence)
It is a long process for this to take place and takes much effort, but it begins with a single step. One can begin this journey simply by saying this prayer as the first thought or utterance as one awakens in the morning. We can sanctify our days by beginning it with prayer. Before we begin a task we can cross ourselves and ask the Lord to bless the task and us. One of the smallest and most beneficial things we can do in saying our prayers is to remember the comma in the words, “Lord, have mercy.” This little pause, reminds us that we are speaking to someone, not just chanting a mantra or saying something by rote. Even saying Lord, have mercy forty times becomes, as it is meant to be, a fervent prayer to the Creator of the Universe. Great endeavors do not start with grandiose gestures and immediate results. Journeys do not begin at the destination. They start with the first steps, with the rolling up of the sleeves and getting down to work. In our case, that work is to love.
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos