Sunday, September 30, 2012

Baptism and Mercy: Homily for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1
St. Luke 6:31-36
            We have witnessed today the mystery of our salvation as Lisa, Zach, and Isaac have put on Christ in baptism; they and Ed have been filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation and are now fully integrated into the life of Christ’s Body, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  They have renounced Satan and all the corruptions of evil in response to St. Paul’s admonition:  “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord…I will be a Father to you and you shall be my sons and daughters.”  And they will be the first today to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist as they partake of the Heavenly Banquet for the very first time.
            Of course, the Lord’s calling to them is the same as it is to the rest of us:  to turn away from everything that holds us back from participating fully in the life of Christ, from shining brightly with the divine glory for which we were created.  The hard truth, however, is that our journey to the Kingdom is not as easy as making it through the ceremonies of baptism and chrismation.  Instead, we actually have to live as those who have died to sin and risen to a new life in baptism.  We have to embody the fruits of the Holy Spirit and become instruments for His work in the world.  Our body and blood—our entire life—must become a living icon of the Savior’s obedient offering of every dimension of His life to the Father.
            That’s a tall order and none of us fills it perfectly, but we are reminded in today’s gospel lesson where we need to start; namely, with mercy.  None of us deserves the mercy of God; by definition, mercy is given, not earned.  Baptism, chrismation, and communion are not rewards for good behavior, but totally undeserved blessings for those who know that they are unworthy of them even as they do their best to live in accordance with God’s will for their lives.  If we are so bold as to accept the divine love and forgiveness for our sins and failings, we have an obligation to extend the same love and forgiveness to others.  If we judge and condemn people while claiming to trust in the mercy of the Lord, our faith is a sham, a fraud, a lie.  And instead of worshiping our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ—who said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”—we really worship ourselves, which is a pathetic form of idolatry by which we will exclude ourselves from the joy of the Kingdom. 
            Well, we obviously don’t want to do that.  So let’s get to work.  Let’s ask who are those in our lives who do not love us, whom we count as our enemies, whom we would like to see fail or least whom we wish would just go away and stop bothering us?  Surely, we all have them.  Instead of fantasizing about their doom, we should help them as best we can, pray for them, and show them the same patient consideration and forgiveness that that the Lord has shown us.  Maybe we are right and they are wrong, as best we can tell.  Maybe our line of work makes it our responsibility to correct or discipline them in some way.  Maybe we really do have to protect others, such as our children or someone else for whom we are responsible, from their bad influence.  Nonetheless, we can refuse to hate them; we can act decently toward them; and we do the best we can under the circumstances to help them, even if they will likely never return the favor.  We can still treat them as we would like others to treat us.
            Whether we were baptized today or decades ago, the calling is to the same:  to be a living icon of the mercy that Jesus Christ has brought to sinners like you and me. In order to do that, we must struggle daily to separate ourselves from evil in all its forms.   There is no better place to start than in how we treat the people with whom we have a problem.  But God is gracious and if we will do our best to show them the same mercy that we ask of Him, then we will be His sons and daughters.   As Christ said, “He is kind to the unthankful and the evil.  Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  That is the most basic challenge today to us all.  If we have put on Christ in baptism at any point in our lives, let’s start acting like it in how we respond to the people we love to hate.      

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Frustrated Fishermen and Barren Old Couples: Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Conception of the Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 4:22-27
The Gospel According to St. Luke 5:1-11
             Probably everyone who has a job or is in school has felt at some point like the disciples did when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets.  They had fished all night and caught nothing.  Things hadn’t turned out as they had hoped, and they were disappointed and frustrated to the point of giving up.   I’ve been there many times and I bet that you have also.  But then the Lord told them to get back to work and let down their net.   They did so and caught so many fish that their net was breaking and their boats began to sink.  Just imagine what a surprise that was for them. They were all amazed and St. Peter fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But the Lord said, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Christ as His disciples.
            That day probably began like any other day.  The fishermen were busy with their work and who knows whether they expected anything out of the ordinary to occur.  It was just another day with the same old routine and the same responsibilities and worries.  But then the Lord blessed them and they saw that their work was not simply about fish, but about bringing people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.
            Surely, the disciples knew that they couldn’t take credit for such a large haul of fish.  And there was no way that they could become fishers of men simply by their own power.  We are made of the dust of the earth, enlivened by the breath of God.   We are just flesh and blood.  We can’t make fish swim into our nets or even solve many of the small problems we encounter every day. Much less can we give anyone eternal life. 
            The good news of the gospel, however, is that our Lord is able to bless and transform our humble work, the difficult situations we face, and all the struggles of our lives.  No matter what we are doing, no matter how well or poorly it seems to be going, no matter how frustrated we may be, Christ is with us, inviting us to make the same old frustrating and boring routine into a ministry of the Kingdom.   
            Granted, the disciples were called to a very special ministry in the founding of the Church; they had to leave their old occupations and serve the Lord full-time as evangelists, apostles, and bishops.  Some continue to be called to serve in that way.  But most of us will remain right where we are, spending each day in an office, a shop, a classroom, or some other workplace.  We may be tempted to think that what we do has no spiritual significance, that we are somehow second or third-class in our service of the Kingdom because we remain in the same old world.   But that would be a great error, for all work is holy because it provides opportunities to be good stewards of God’s creation and to offer our lives and the fruits of our labor to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment. 
            Yes, our work and our education can be very difficult, but we are called to bear our crosses and learn patience through our struggles and problems.  In response to disappointments and difficulties, we have opportunities to grow in humility and trust.  That is what Zacharias and Elizabeth did as a faithful Jewish couple who had not been blessed with children.  Like the disciples, their nets were empty and they had given up hope for children, an especially painful situation for Jews who had a role to play in continuing the family line of Abraham that God had promised to bless in the Old Testament.  Of course, the story of the Hebrew people began with Abraham and Sarah, another elderly couple without children, whose frustration and sorrow was overcome by God’s promise to bless them and their descendants.   They could take no credit for this blessing and neither could the parents of John the Baptist.  And even though Zacharias responded to the message of the Archangel Gabriel with doubt, he and Elizabeth were still blessed beyond their expectations.  God always remains faithful to His promises, even though we are often not faithful to ours.
            Their life was not a bed of roses, however, for Zacharias would be martyred when the wicked King Herod murdered the young boys of Bethlehem.  Elizabeth died forty days later and John grew up in the wilderness as an ascetic prophet who would eventually lose his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  But God worked through these painful circumstances to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ, to extend His promises to Abraham to all would have faith in the Savior.
            Do you see what these stories have in common?  Barren elderly people have babies.  Fisherman who have caught nothing suddenly find that their nets are breaking and their boats sinking because of their large haul.  And people like you and me grow in patience, humility, and selflessness by enduring our daily disappointments, worries, fears, and aches and pains.  At times, we may feel that we are accomplishing nothing and be tempted to think that there is no point at all to what we do all day or maybe even to what we have done for years.  But that would be truly a temptation, for the Lord has promised never to abandon us, to be with us always, and we know His power most when we have no doubt about our own weakness.  If we are offering our lives to Him as best we can, we can trust in His blessing—even if we cannot figure out how He is at work in our present situation.
            What is failure and frustration in our eyes may present a unique opportunity for us to grow into the people God wants us to be, to prepare us for a role we cannot yet imagine.  He used the childlessness of Zacharias and Elizabeth to prepare the way for Christ.  He used the frustration of the fisherman to open their hearts to the new life of discipleship.  And in ways that we probably do not yet have the eyes to see, He calls us to use our present circumstances as an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, and love and to better serve Him and our neighbors.           
            Contrary to what our culture teachers, our work is not simply about us.  It is a form of service through which we transform God’s good creation for His glory.  And we don’t do it alone for we journey together toward a new heaven and a new earth.  Jesus’ Christ’s ministry of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming good news to the poor shows that His salvation concerns the real-life challenges that people continue to face in the world as we know it.  He showed God’s love for the hated Gentiles and Samaritans, for people who had fallen into great sin and were shunned by respectable people.  In His Body, the Church, all peoples and nations are reconciled and united in the life of the Kingdom.   We cannot judge Him by worldly standards and neither should we judge ourselves in that way.
            Whether we see it or not, our daily work plays a role in bringing His salvation to the world.  Everything that we do and say should be a sign of God’s blessing.  We all have the opportunity to forgive those who wrong us; to work toward reconciliation with those from whom we have become estranged; to refuse to treat people differently because they look, act, or think differently than we do; and not to let greed or ambition get in the way of relating to others with honesty, kindness, and decency.    Of course, our work must support us financially, but there is a difference between meeting our legitimate needs and selfishly worshipping comfort, convenience, and commercialism.  When we have the opportunity to encourage our co-workers, classmates, or businesses to serve Christ in the poor, lonely, or troubled, we should do so. 
            Like Abraham and Sarah, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, our calling is to use the challenges, blessings, and painful struggles of our daily lives to grow in holiness as we play our role in making this world an icon of God’s salvation.  That’s how we may all become fishers of men.  So even if we feel like we have fished all night and caught nothing, it’s time to let down our nets again in obedience to Christ’s command.  He alone turns apparent failure into glorious victory.  He alone works even through our troubles to bless us.  So we must not fall into despair or fear, but instead trust that God is with us and at work in our lives.       

Saturday, September 15, 2012

On Taking up the Cross: Homily for the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross and for the Commemoration of the Holy Great Martyr Euphemia in the Orthodox Church

  Saint Mark 8:34-9:1
    Epistle to the Galatians 2:16-20
              We think of the cross as the great symbol of our Christian faith.  We wear it around our necks and otherwise display it proudly. But during the first century it was nothing of the sort; it was a cruel instrument of execution used by the Romans to make a statement:  unfortunate people died long, painful, and shameful deaths on crosses.  The intention was for their wretched example to strike fear in the hearts of would-be traitors and rebels.  No one at that time honored the cross in any way, and certainly no one thought that God’s Messiah would die on one.
            Our Lord’s disciples, like other Jews, apparently expected a successful king, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in His kingdom. So it made no sense at all to His disciples when the Savior told them that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter tried to correct Him, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world.   To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was simply the work of Satan.
Then Christ told the disciples what they really didn’t want to hear.  They too must take up their crosses and lose their lives; that’s the way to enter into the blessed salvation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Though it is shameful in the eyes of the world, the cross will be their instrument of victory.  The false gods of this world are passing away, and we will not save ourselves through them.  Instead, we must lose our lives in the service of the Kingdom in order to become our true selves in the divine image and likeness. 
            The hard truth that the Savior broke to His disciples was that we can’t jump ahead to the joy of the resurrection.  We must first go with our Lord to the cross; we too must die in order to rise again. That is what the Holy Great Martyr Euphemia did, giving up her privileged life as a Roman senator’s daughter to endure horrible tortures for Christ and to die after being wounded by a wild bear in the arena.
            Of course, martyrdom and persecution of believers continue in the world today.  The Communists martyred millions in the 20th century.  The Christians of Egypt are especially vulnerable right now, as are those in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and many other places.  We must support them by our prayers, generosity to charitable organizations like IOCC, and by doing what we can to make their plight known in our own country.  It is shameful that a nation like ours with so many Christians makes alleviating the sufferings of our brothers and sisters such a low priority.  No prominent group or individual in American culture or government or politics has placed much emphasis on helping persecuted Christians around the world.  How sad.
            Even though probably none of us will be called literally to die for Christ as physical martyrs, that doesn’t mean that we are exempt from the Lord’s teaching to take up our crosses and follow Him.  For every last one of us needs to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have distorted ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  Christ offered Himself in free obedience to the Father, taking upon Himself the full consequences of sin and death to the point of a horrible execution; He did so out of love for us.   And thus He opened the way to the Kingdom of heaven, to life eternal, for you, me, and all humankind.    
            And that way is the cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, of His victory over death, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.  No, that does not mean trying to put ourselves in situations where we will be persecuted or convincing ourselves that all our problems are the result of someone being unfair to us because of our faith.  Instead, it means that we must die to our sinful desires and actions and that we must crucify the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  We must kill our obsession with hating our enemies, judging others, with getting our own way, living only for ourselves, and satisfying every self-centered desire.   
            Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that in a culture that encourages us to worship at the altar of self-glorification.  If we have enough money or social standing or power, we think that we will be happy.  If our bodies look a certain way, if we find the friends and the spouse that we want, and if our candidates and our teams win their contests, we think that all will be well.  And if our desires are frustrated, we feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and condemnation toward those who stand in the way.  If we get what we want when we want it, we think that we have found the good life.  So everything centers on us, our desire, our will, our pleasure, our obsessive need to build ourselves up even as we put others down.   
            The sad truth is that even those who succeed in such idolatry are still miserable, are still looking for true peace, joy, and fulfillment. They may gain the whole world, but end up losing their souls.  And how many people throughout history have been poor and miserable by worldly standards, have had no power or prominence at all, and perhaps have literally suffered torture and died as martyrs like St. Euphemia, but still shined brightly with love, forgiveness, and holiness; they saved their lives by losing them in the service of God and neighbor.   
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  In other words, by dying to his sins, Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in Paul’s life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.    
Do you see the connection?  If we want to share in Christ’s life, we must also share in His death.  If we want to participate in His glory, we must share in His humiliation.  If we want to become our true selves in Christ, we must die to the distortions and corruptions we have welcomed into our lives.   That’s how we become who we are created to be in the first place.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"For God So Loved the World": Homily for the Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

                If you go to a football game, you’ll see fans hold up signs, waving towels, and wearing the colors of their team.  And you might even see someone holding up a sign with a Bible verse, a sign that says, “John 3:16.”  That’s because this verse is such a clear summary of the very heart of our faith.  “ For God so loved the world…”
            Some of us memorized this verse of the Bible as children in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  Perhaps we’ve heard it so often that we can’t understand how anyone wouldn’t get it, how anyone wouldn’t understand that the Father loves us so much that He sent the Son to bring us into His eternal life.   We often forget that this verse was first spoken by the Lord to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish law, who had absolutely no idea what the Christ was talking about.
            When He spoke of being born again, Nicodemus was confused, for he understood only physical birth; and obviously that happens only once.  But Christ was speaking of a new life in Him, a rebirth through water (meaning baptism) and the Holy Spirit whereby we enter into the eternal life of God.  Nicodemus was shocked because he believed that people were made right with God simply by obeying His laws.  And at some level, he must have known from experience that that kind of religion doesn’t give you a new life.  It may make you more law-abiding or moral, but it doesn’t change who you are; and it certainly doesn’t seem like a re-birth into a new existence.
            So the Savior gave Nicodemus a practical example from the Old Testament that might get the point across.  Moses once lifted up a bronze serpent on a rod to cure the Israelites from poisonous snake bites.  Through this act by Moses, the giver of the law, the Jewish people were spared from death on a particular day.  But when Jesus Christ is lifted up on the cross, He gives eternal life to those who believe in Him.  For our Lord is not merely a prophet or the giver of the law, He is the One Who came down from heaven, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Out of love for us, He went to the cross, not to condemn us, but to give us new life, to make it possible for us to be born again in the joy and blessing of life eternal.   The Son of God condemns no one but Himself, enduring the full consequences of all human sin and corruption to the point of death, burial, and descent to Hades; and then He arose victorious, bringing us into the salvation of the kingdom of God.
            Well, this was too much for Nicodemus to understand fully.  He had probably never heard such things in his life.  But by the end of the gospel of John, we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare the Lord’s body for burial after His crucifixion. He became Saint Nicodemus and is believed to have given his own life for Christ, following Him in the way of the cross as a martyr.
            Why would Nicodemus have done that?  He had a respectable position among his own people as a Pharisee.  He surely had what was thought of as a good life in that time and place.  But perhaps he sensed in Jesus Christ something completely new, not simply another set of laws to obey, another wise rabbi to follow, or another way to become prominent in society.  Instead, in Him he found God; and not a distant, remote deity waiting to condemn those who didn’t measure up.   He found a God Who took the condemnation upon Himself; a Father Who would offer His own Son to death; a Lord Who would be slaughtered as a Passover lamb.  Who could force or require such sacrifices from the Almighty?  Obviously, no one could.  But out of a divine love more selfless and humble and forgiving that we can possibly conceive, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have brought us into their divine, eternal, everlasting life.  We are born again in our Lord Who has conquered sin and death on our behalf.
            Nicodemus is a lot like the Apostle Paul, for like him he didn’t understand at first the way of Jesus Christ.  But also like Nicodemus, he changed completely and then became an unparalleled evangelist and missionary and the author of so much of the New Testament.  Also a Pharisee, Paul knew the Old Testament law inside and out; he knew its limitations and weaknesses; he knew the temptation to self-righteousness that legalism brings.  But in Christ Jesus, Paul experienced something completely different from the law; he experienced what he called “a new creation.”  For our Lord is the new Adam in which all that has gone wrong with human beings and the world since the fall of our first parents has been set right.  He has taken the condemnation of the old Adam—of sin, death, and corruption—upon Himself with His cross.  He has brought us all up from the pit of hades to the heights of heaven. 
            A legal code cannot do that, but the God-Man Jesus Christ can and did.  So Paul learned, as had Nicodemus, to boast in nothing except the cross of Christ; in other words, the unfathomable love of the Father Who gave His only-begotten Son, the great Mystery of the Eternal Word of God who became a Passover Lamb, became the basis of a new life for these former Pharisees, a new life that was worth dying for as martyrs.
            Some people reject Christianity because they think that our faith is too judgmental, that we focus too much on the wrath of God; perhaps they may have known Christians who looked down on others self-righteously or hypocritically; or perhaps they have known people who turned the good news of salvation into just another form of legalism.  But when we remember the fundamental truths of our faith that became life-changing for Nicodemus and Paul, we see that such interpretations of Christianity are terrible distortions.  Judgment, condemnation, legalism, and wrath, these are dimensions of life that we all know far too well.   But Christ did not come to judge, condemn, or punish with wrath or to burden us with new regulations; instead, He came to save, bless, and heal.  Look at Him when He is lifted up on the cross.  We do not see a God eager to distribute hell, fire, and brimstone to others; instead, we see Him selflessly bearing the full brunt of all the evil of the universe for our sake. 
            And anyone who is a new creation in Him, who has been re-born into the life of the Kingdom through His cross and resurrection, has no basis whatsoever for the self-righteous judgment of anyone else.  For it is not our morality, social respectability, legal observance, or political options that have made us partakers of the Divine Nature; instead, it is the mercy of the God-Man Who went to the cross for us.  Paul was as zealous a Pharisee as ever lived, but his eyes opened to the truth that his only righteousness, his only hope, was in the crucified and risen Lord in whom he had become part of a new creation.
            Our calling, then, is to live out this new life that Christ has brought to the world.  The same sacrificial, humble, forgiving love that is our salvation must become evident in our lives, must become characteristic of who we are.  For to be born again through Christ is not merely a feeling or a one-time event; instead, it is the reality of sharing in His life, of participating in His salvation, of living as His faithful disciples each day.   It is the joy of being part of a new creation, the New Adam, the Body of Christ. It is the joy of life everlasting, of the salvation of God, which the cross of Christ has brought into the world.
            “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Of Vineyards and Cornerstones: Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

St. Matthew 21:33-42
1 Corinthians 16: 13-24

            There probably are not many vineyards close to Abilene, but we can all still understand what Jesus Christ was talking about in today’s gospel reading.  A vineyard is a place where grapes are grown.  The Lord told a parable about a landowner who had workers take care of his vineyard.  When the grapes were ready, he wanted the fruit and sent servants to get it.  But things went south from there.  The workers beat and killed whomever he sent.  And even when the landowner sent his own son, they killed him also.
 Of course, the Lord was talking about the religious and political leaders who so often rejected and killed the prophets whom God had sent them in the Old Testament.  And that’s also how they responded to the Son of God, refusing to accept His teachings and handing him over to the Romans for death on a cross.  Christ spoke this parable against the high priests and Pharisees, and they knew it.  Salvation did not come to the world through their hypocritical distortion of the law of Moses or through ritual sacrifices in the Temple.  Instead, the One whom they rejected became the chief corner stone, the very foundation of a new kingdom in which Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, young, old, slave, and free would know the blessing of life eternal through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.  Yes, this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
St. Peter wrote in his epistle that Christians are “living stones…being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  (1 Peter 2:4-5) In other words, as the Church we are collectively the temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  (1 Peter 2:9) The Jews of old had a law and the teachings of the prophets, but we are members of Christ’s own Body; we are branches of His vine; we share His own Body and Blood; and He lives in our hearts.
We have to be careful, however, not to fall into the temptation of condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees for their blindness and simply congratulating ourselves for believing in the Gospel.  In other words, there’s more going on here than thinking “bad for them, good for us. “  For all too often, we are very much like those who rejected our Lord.  No, we don’t deny that He is the Son of God.  We do not seek to kill Him or say that He is evil.  But in much of our lives, we do not truly accept Him as the cornerstone, as the very foundation of who we are as men and women, husbands and wives, or boys and girls. 
  So instead of focusing on how the Jewish leaders rejected the Messiah two thousand years ago, let’s think about how we reject Him today.  To whom much is given, much is expected.  We have been given far more than even the most righteous person of the Old Testament and God expects much more of us. When Christ interpreted the Old Testament law to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, He demanded that they be more righteous than the religious leaders of their day.  And since those fellows were sticklers for following all the details of the law and interpreting them very strictly, I bet that the disciples weren’t happy to hear that.  But the Lord wasn’t interested in that kind of outward righteousness.  Instead, He went for the heart, for the depths of who they were as people.  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
Jesus Christ told them that it wasn’t enough to obey the law, “You shall not kill.”  Instead, His followers needed to root out the cause of murder from their hearts.  They had to give up anger, insults, and hatred.   It wasn’t enough for them not to cheat on their spouses.  They were to eliminate lust from their hearts.  It wasn’t enough for them to demand “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” from those who wronged them.  They were to turn the other check, to love, to forgive, to be like God in showing mercy to the just and the unjust.   In fact, they were to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.
The point is that, if we view our faith as simply a set of laws to obey, we will end up rejecting Jesus Christ as the corner stone of our lives.   For our Savior is not merely the teacher of a code of conduct, He’s the foundation of our life.  He goes to the heart.  We are His temple and our life is in Him.  And whenever we refuse to accept the new and glorious life that He has given us, we reject Him and we turn away from our true selves and our only hope.  When that happens, we are just like a building that isn’t properly grounded on a solid foundation.  We are in a very dangerous situation.  For apart from the mercy of Christ, we Gentiles don’t have a leg to stand on, not even the Old Testament law.  We would be worshiping rocks, trees, and the seasons of the year if it were not for our Savior who fulfilled the promises to Abraham to include us all.
You see, something or someone has to be the foundation of our life.  If it’s not our Lord, we will make up a false god.  The character of our hearts and souls will be determined by something or someone.  We will be a temple of one kind or another.  But if we want to be different from those vineyard workers who rejected and killed the landowner’s servants and even his son, our life—our identity—must be firmly, solidly grounded on the one true cornerstone.  Our hearts must become pure temples for the one true God and we must turn away from the idols that have worked their way into our lives.   
That’s why we don’t talk about the Christian life in the Orthodox Church as a simple set of rules, for it’s easy to obey a few laws and then find loopholes to get around what you don’t want to do.  But Christ is not the cornerstone of that kind of life.  Instead, He is infinitely holy and righteous, and He brings us into the brilliant light of the Kingdom of God where there is no room for any thought, word, or deed that does not reflect His glory.  To accept Him as the cornerstone of our lives is to be engaged in the eternal process of sharing in His life and light, of being transformed by His holiness to the depths of our hearts.
So we must constantly purify our hearts, minds, and souls by removing from our lives every thought, word, and deed that isn’t holy, that doesn’t belong in a temple.  Anything that doesn’t fit squarely on the foundation of Jesus Christ has no place in us.  As we pray, fast, forgive those who wrong us, help the poor, guard our thoughts, and fight our passions, we will gain the clarity that we need to sort out the holy from the unholy in hearts and lives.  And as we are nourished by our Lord’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist and receive His forgiveness through Confession, we will find new strength to embody the righteousness of Christ as we go through each day.  Remember that our goal is not to follow a law, but to become like an iron in the fire, to shine visibly with the radiant light of heaven, to convey the unspeakable beauty of God in an often dark and ugly world.
As we enter into the offering of the Eucharist, let us now truly lift up our hearts and commend ourselves, one another, and all our life unto Christ our God.  And as we begin a new week, let us actually live that way as we go through our daily routines and shine forth with the glory of the true temple built squarely upon the one true foundation, the cornerstone, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  To do anything less is to reject Him just as surely as did the corrupt religious leaders of old.