Saturday, February 2, 2013

Orthodox Christian Homily on the Greatest Commandments: Love of God and Neighbor

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew 22:35-46
            If you’re like me, you sometimes lose perspective on what is most important in life.  We get so busy, so distracted, and so worried about what is going on around us at the moment at home, at work, or wherever that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture, and instead focus on small things that aren’t really crucial.  So we end up wasting our time and energy on what really isn’t very important.
            The Pharisees were experts at missing the big picture, especially of interpreting the Old Testament law in such rigid detail that they ignored the true point of the commandments.  When one of them asked the Lord to name the greatest commandment in the law, he was apparently trying to trap Christ in a complicated argument.  But the Lord wasn’t about to play that game; He wasn’t about to waste time and energy in pointless speculation that served only to confuse people.  Instead, He got to the heart of the matter:  He quoted from the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  That fundamental, and often overlooked, central teaching of the Jewish faith is the first and great commandment, according to Christ. 
            But our Savior wasn’t done yet.  He added a second commandment “that is like it,” taken from the book of Leviticus:  ”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And He concluded that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  In other words,  the  10 Commandments given to Moses and all the other legal material of the Old Testament, together with all the prophetic teachings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos and the rest of the prophets, grow from these two basic commandments:  to love God with every ounce of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
            Jesus Christ got to the heart of the matter, for He knew that the law and the prophets were intended to direct the people to communion with God, to loving fellowship and union with Him which would include their relationships with one another.  Remember His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:  Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.  In other words, those who are blessed in the eternal life of the Kingdom are those who have been purified by the love of God to the depths of their souls and who show that love in their relationships with others.
            No, Christ did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  He called His followers, and He calls us, to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.  That doesn’t mean that we will follow more laws than they did, but that the meaning and purpose of the Law will be fulfilled in us:  that we will grow in the likeness of God, that we will be united fully with Him through love; that His love will overflow into every relationship that we have and will become present in the world through us.   In other words, we will become holy through the love of God and neighbor; indeed, that’s what true holiness means, to be purified in love and union with God and with one another. 
            Though we may not yet have the eyes to see it, our entire life in the Church—and every bit of our life in the world as Christians—presents an opportunity to grow in holiness through the love of God and neighbor.  Indeed, that’s the point of it all:  of our services, our prayers at home, our fasting, our feasting, our generosity to the poor, our forgiveness of others, our marriages and family life, our recreation, and all our work on the job or at school.  They are all part of fulfilling our most fundamental calling:  to grow in the likeness of God, to become partakers of the Divine Nature, to grow in loving union with the Holy Trinity and with one another.
            But that may sound strange.  After all, we work to make a living.  We go to school to learn and to prepare to make a living.  We spend time with friends and family, play games and watch sports or listen to music because we like to.  We don’t often think of these activities as religious at all.  So what do they have to do with growing in holiness or fulfilling the commandments?
            Well, the answer is found when we remember that the Incarnate Son of God became a human being with a real body in order to bless, heal, and sanctify us and everything about us and our world. In His resurrection Christ conquered every corruption and distortion of our fallen humanity, and has now ascended into heaven as the God-Man, showing us our destiny for life eternal.  The good news of the gospel is that every single bit of our life presents an opportunity to share in His sanctification of our humanity, to grow in love of God and neighbor, to continue on the path trod by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
            For example, who isn’t worried about the economy these days and how it impacts our businesses, our livelihood, and our personal finances?  We don’t like to hear or say it, but bad economic times remind us not to worship the Almighty Dollar and not to look for fulfillment and peace in money or possessions.  We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, not to love wealth or worldly success.  And when times are hard, we are reminded to place our trust in Him, not in what is here today and gone tomorrow and can never truly satisfy us.
            If we want to love our neighbors as ourselves, we never have to look far at all.  Every person whom we meet is a living icon of Christ and is called to life eternal.   No matter the circumstance, whenever we put someone else’s interest above our own, whenever we are generous with our time, our attention, or our resources, whenever we help someone in any way, we serve Christ and grow at least a bit in the divine likeness.   No matter our age, gender, occupation, or circumstances, we all have the opportunity each day to love our neighbors as ourselves and Christ in our neighbors.
And in relation to the Church, let’s remember above all not to be like the Pharisees.  They loved to keep score on how righteous they were in comparison to others.  They thought that obeying laws was an end in itself.  Unfortunately, it’s possible to go through all the motions of religion without love for God and neighbor.   It’s possible to miss the point entirely and to become a self-righteous, legalistic judge of others.   But that’s to miss the point entirely, for we fast, pray, come to Church, and lead upright lives not in order to impress God or other people.  Instead, in humility and repentance, we want Christ to train our souls, to shape our lives in His image.  The point is not simply to follow a bunch of laws, but to grow in love for God and neighbor through the worship and way of life taught by the Body of Christ, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we make the time to pray daily and to come to Liturgy on Sundays and Feast days; when we confess ours sins and prepare conscientiously to receive Communion; when we wrestle with our passions through fasting or other forms of self-denial; when we humble ourselves to serve others and to ask for their forgiveness when we offend them; when we live faithfully—though imperfectly—as Christ’s followers, we grow in the love of God and neighbor, and we shine a bit more brightly with the holy light of Christ.  Then we grow in union with the Lord and His righteousness and, despite our unworthiness, we share in Christ’s fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  That is what our life as human beings is about, and it is possible because the Son of God really has become one of us so that we may become more like Him, being truly perfected in love.     

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