|Homily for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:25-28|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever
One of the most frequent complaints I hear about our Orthodox Faith.... too many rules.
Are there? Yes we have a lot of rules in our spiritual life....but are there too many? Is it impossible to follow them?
There is the Law of Moses which no one could follow to the letter, of course. This is what St. Paul teaches us: that it is through the Law that we learn what sin is...and that we cannot rely on our own strength alone.
We have a lot of laws in our society. I don’t hear many people complaining that we have traffic regulations. We add to those regulations all the time as needed...no texting while driving....that would seem obvious...but people needed to be told and it needed to be enforced....otherwise we’d be a technically savvy but maimed society....battered and bruised by all the car accidents.
What are “rules” though? The word “canon” means a guide. We also speak of a rule of faith or a ruler that measures something.
Religious rules and laws are not really the same thing as judicial laws, really...they are guides to life. We draw a straight edge with a ruler....we follow the path that has been drawn and we find that the way is clearer to the destination if we stay on the path drawn out for us.
Do they have the force of law? If someone doesn’t fast are they thrown into prison? No. They are guides.
In the case of the Lord, we find that the rules laid down for us lead us to the Kingdom of heaven....should be a pretty good incentive!
A problem arises, though, when we make the rules the point of our faith...I think that this is what many people get confused by when they complain that there are too many rules....they think the rules are what earns us the right to get to heaven. Following rules will never get you to heaven....as a reward for following the rules. Following the rules makes smooth your pathway...that is all.
Think of it this way: a marathon runner can eat pizza, drink beer and smoke a pack of camels a day..... He isn’t breaking the law....but one can bet that his trainer would be upset....why? Because, by doing these things, would he win a race? Probably not! He’s breaking the rules of his training.
Now on the other hand, what if one trains and trains but their heart is not in it – will they even care if they win or not? Will they have the effort or will to win a race -- probably not. If one’s heart is not in the work, the workout won’t work out.
The rules don’t get you to heaven – the laws don’t get you to heaven! What does?
“25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and made trial of him, saying, Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 26 And he said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? 27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. 28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” (Luke 10:25-28)
Love is the driving force behind the rules. Love will get us to the Kingdom, will bring us eternal life! It’s been said by the ancient Jewish Sages, and the Church Fathers that the Lawyer’s answer was the whole of the Law in one sentence...the rest of the Scriptures are just commentary on that Law of life. Metropolitan Athanassios of Cyprus (Fr. Maximos in the Mountain of Silence) writes:
Godʹs first and only commandment - the first and only one, as all the other commandments are the result of this first one - is to love God with all of your heart. Christ Himself said that the first commandment is: ʺYou shall love theLord your God with all of your soul, with all of your heart, with all of your might and with all of your mind.ʺ
And a second commandment - a second one, similar to the first – which springs from within the first commandment - is the one that says ʺlove your neighbourʺ. Everything else is a result of these.
So if we only have really one commandment....what are all these rules? The canons – rules—guidelines are tools to train us so that we will grow into the likeness of God – based on our love for Him.
In the same way, a runner who trains and does so for the love of the sport will win the race (or make a good showing at least!).... running laps does not win a race, eating right does not make one win the race: but they are tools that give wings to the desire to compete and win.
So it is with our spiritual disciplines.
As I said our spiritual laws are not the same as a legal system. You’re not going to get a ticket for not fasting the same way you may get a ticket for going too fast! (had to put a pun in there somewhere!)
BUT one will also not gain the benefit of fasting – or of any of the other spiritual disciplines. One may get to heaven without having ever tasted a soy burger before Christmas (some would say that is heaven...never having ever tasted a soy burger...but you get the point). But without fasting, without vigils, without going to our long services, without modesty, without effort it will be more difficult. Our disciplines teach us how to take up our cross and follow Christ. They teach us how to say no to temptations...they mold our character.....They are not the point of our spiritual life, though. We do not fast for fasting’s sake. We fast, one would hope, in order to teach us to rely on God, to be able to turn to God in times of temptation, not to fall as often into sin because our sins separate us from God. God loves us and never forgets us or turns away from us....but we can become more enamored of something physical before us and forget God...we’ll make our bellies gods – or something else will become our idol. If we love God with our whole being, we won’t do that. If we love God with our whole being we will direct every aspect of ourselves toward God..including food (can you tell a fast is about to start?....our disciplines are not all about food, of course. They include what we watch, what we say, how we treat each other -- our neighbor!-- and ourselves...the entirety of our being).
As we recently heard: God loves a cheerful giver. That cheerful part is crucial. A gift given to God, an offering to God that is grudging is no offering...it’s at best a bribe or at worst we can look at it like a hated tax. If we hate to give to God (who gave and gives us everything), it could be construed as saying that we aren’t too fond of God Himself. This was the reason, some Father say, that Cain’s offering to God was not accepted. Cain gave with a grudging heart. He did not give out of love.
This is not a homily about giving money to the Church, though. No. It’s about how we approach what we often call our duties to God and the Church.
This is the problem. We see them as duties and obligations and tasks we have to do in order to get to heaven.
Gotta say my prayers
Gotta volunteer some time
Gotta feast (OK, no one has ever complained about that...but there are canons!)
Gotta go to Church....
Gotta gotta gotta.
We’ve gotta get that phrase out of our vocabulary!
Remember there is only one rule: Love God with every fiber of our being! From that everything else will flow. Anything that can be an impediment to our progress toward God will be discarded and anything that can be used to keep one focused on God and His Kingdom, that will help shape us and conform us to His Likeness will be embraced.
Then we will find that we can change that first o in I gotta do x (what ever it is...fasting, go to Church, pray, etc) to an e. Instead of an obligation the rules will become a joy. We “get to” instead of “got to.”
(c) 2013 Fr. Philip Kontos