Sunday, November 5, 2017

Showing Others the Mercy We Have Received: Homily for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost and the 5th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 16:19-31
          In Paris in the 1930s and early 40s, there was an unusual Orthodox nun whose ministry was focused on showing the love of Christ to destitute and broken people who lived on the streets in misery.  During the Nazis occupation of Paris, she and her companions risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.  Eventually, they were arrested and sent to concentration campus.  That is where Mother Maria Skobtsova, now known as St. Maria of Paris, died for the Savior Whom she served in her neighbors on Holy Saturday in 1945 only a few weeks before the liberation of the camp, by some accounts taking the place of another prisoner in the gas chamber that day.
St. Maria of Paris comes to mind as the complete opposite of the rich man in today’s gospel lesson.  That man was such a slave to self-centeredness that he spent his time and resources buying the finest clothing and funding great banquets for himself every day.  His needy neighbor Lazarus was at most a nuisance to him, a diseased beggar in front of his home whose only comfort was when the dogs licked his open sores.  The rich man, however, ignored Lazarus, and at most stepped over or around him whenever he went into his house.  His heart was hardened and he had no compassion even on a fellow Jew living in such squalor.  He must have denied him even the crumbs from the table on which he enjoyed his fine meals.
By disregarding his poor neighbor, the rich man showed that he worshiped only himself, not the God of Israel.  The Old Testament makes quite clear the obligation of the Hebrews to care for their needy neighbors, but this man lived as though he were his own god.  So after he died, he experienced the brilliant glory of God as a burning flame, which reflected how he had been overcome by darkness to the point of becoming totally blind to the dignity of Lazarus as one who bore the image and likeness of God.  It is no small thing to live that way, for those who treat the living icons of the Lord as worthless creatures also reject Him and bring condemnation upon themselves.
That is why Father Abraham said in this parable about the brothers of the rich man that “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”  In other words, those who have ignored what has already been clearly revealed have made themselves so blind that they will be unable to recognize even the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of One who rises from the dead.
This parable points, of course, to the spiritual blindness of those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.  Those who had disregarded the clear teachings of the Law and the Prophets to the point that they had ignored meeting the most basic needs of their neighbors lacked the spiritual clarity to see much at all of God’s truth, including the profundity of the Savior conquering death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Those so wedded to the idolatry of serving only themselves and ignoring the needs of others were in no position to recognize and receive their own Messiah.
That recognition is a reminder of why St. Paul was so critical of the Judaizers who would have required Gentile converts to Christianity to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law.  As he put it, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”  Something as minuscule as the requirement to obey a particular command for a surgical procedure pales before the need of humanity for healing, transformation, and fulfillment in God.  Other rules involving diet or the kind of activities done on a certain day cannot conquer death, the wages of sin.  They cannot turn corrupt human beings into living icons of holiness.  As St. Paul knew as a former Pharisee, their scrupulous observance easily leads to a prideful self-reliance in which people believe that they are made right with God simply by doing this or that by their own power.   Such an attitude is nothing but glorying in oneself, in rejoicing at how holy we think we have become simply by following the rules.
How completely different, however, is the attitude of those who look not to themselves for justification, but to the Cross.  “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  By recognizing that the ultimate healing of our humanity comes through the Self-offering of the God-Man on the Cross, St. Paul destroys the rationale for thinking that Gentile converts must first obey the Jewish law before becoming Christians.  Instead of self-justification, the basis of our relationship with Christ is His gracious mercy available to all who respond to Him with humble faith and repentance.  The focus here is not on ourselves or what we can accomplish in any way, but on His holy love that stops at nothing, not even the Cross, to bring us into right relationship with Him through grace.
As Orthodox Christians who confess that we have received the fullness of the faith through His Body, the Church, how should we live in relation to the Lazaruses of our world and lives?  If the Hebrews of old had an obligation to bless their needy neighbors, how much more do we as the new creation in Christ Jesus have an obligation to become living icons of His love and care for every human being we encounter?   We must not do so with a self-centered spirituality that would view helping others as a way for us simply to fulfill a religious obligation or build up credit with God.  No, we must do so as a new creation, as simply a natural outgrowth of being those who take “glory…in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.  If we are truly in communion with Him, then Christ’s outrageous love for fallen, broken, corrupt people like us must come characteristic of our lives.  We who have received His mercy must show His mercy to others.
If we do not, then we are more spiritually blind than the rich man in today’s parable.  He was held accountable to the Old Testament Law and Prophets, but we have received the fullness of the promise in the God-Man Who rose from the dead on the third day for our salvation.  He offered Himself “on behalf of all and for all,” and if we are in communion with Him, then we must also be in communion with our needy, annoying, and frustrating neighbors, and ultimately all those to whom we may become a sign of His salvation in any way.  The point is not to view other people as an opportunity for us to perform our spiritual duties, but to offer ourselves to them in sacrificial love.  Like St. Paul, we should take glory only in the Cross of our Lord, which we do by joining ourselves to His great Self-offering on behalf of all who bear His image and likeness.
The One Who has risen from dead invites us to participate in His way of living in the world for its salvation, its fulfillment, and its ultimate good.  Those who answer that invitation will look something like St. Maria of Paris as they give themselves away for the sake of others.  They will not disregard the Lazaruses of this world out of selfishness, but will instead learn to love and serve them as Christ has loved and served us.  If we are truly a “a new creation” in Him, how could our lives be otherwise?  If we claim to have received the Lord’s gracious mercy, how can we not show that same blessing to others?   So let us offer ourselves to our neighbors even as He has offered Himself for us.

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