Saturday, November 4, 2023

Loving Our Neighbors More than Our Money is Part of Being "A New Creation": Homily for the Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost & Fifth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 16:19-31

            There is perhaps no more powerful example of our need for Christ’s healing of our souls than that contained in today’s gospel reading.  A rich man with the benefit of the great spiritual heritage of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets had become such a slave to gratifying his desires for indulgence in pleasure that he had become completely blind to his responsibility to show mercy to Lazarus, a miserable beggar who wanted only crumbs and whose only comfort was when dogs licked his open sores.  The rich man’s life revolved around wearing the most expensive clothes and enjoying the finest food and drink, even as he surely stepped over or around Lazarus at the entrance to his home on a regular basis and never did anything at all to relieve his suffering.   

            After their deaths, the two men’s situations were reversed.  The rich man had spent his life rejecting the teachings of Moses and the prophets about the necessity of showing mercy to the poor.   He had diminished himself spiritually to the point that he became unable to recognize Lazarus as a neighbor who bore the image of God.  Consequently, after his death he was blind to the love of God and perceived the divine majesty as only a burning flame of torment.  When the rich man asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of the consequences of living such a depraved life, the great patriarch responded, “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” 

That statement applies to the corrupt nationalistic religious leaders who called for Christ’s crucifixion and denied His resurrection because they wanted only a warrior king who would slaughter their enemies and give them earthly power.  We must not rest content, however, with seeing how the Lord’s statement applies to others, for it should challenge us even more as those who have received the fullness of the mystery of God’s salvation.  Our responsibility is far greater than that of the Jews of old, for as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have every spiritual benefit to strengthen us in serving our Lord in our neighbors.    Since every neighbor is an icon of God, how we treat them reveals our relationship to Him.  Christ taught that what we do “to the least of these,” to the most wretched people, we do to Him.  If we become so obsessed with gratifying ourselves or serving worldly agendas that we refuse to convey His mercy to our neighbors, then we will reject our Messiah and deny the truth of His resurrection, for we will not live in a way that reflects His victory over the corrupting power of sin and death.  Regardless of what we say we believe, we will bear witness through our actions that we have become blind to the good news of our salvation.  And like the rich man, we will exclude ourselves from the joy of the Kingdom.  Remember the words of the Lord: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 7:21)   

Lazarus, like everyone else, bore the image and likeness of God.  There is simply no way around the basic truth that how we relate to our neighbors reveals how we relate to our Lord.  What we do for even the most miserable and inconvenient people we encounter in life, we do for Christ.  And what we refuse to do for them, we refuse to do for our Savior.  Our salvation is in becoming more like Him as we find the healing of our souls by cooperating with His grace.  While we cannot save ourselves any more than we can rise up by our own power from the grave, we must obey His commandments in order to open our souls to receive His healing mercy as we become more like Him as “partakers of the divine nature.” If we do not do that, we will suffer the spiritual blindness of the rich man in today’s gospel lesson, regardless of how much or how little of the world’s treasures we have.  

Our calling is not to any form of religious legalism, but to embrace the healing and restoration that the God-Man shares with us.  In our epistle reading, St. Paul strongly opposes fellow Jewish Christians who required Gentile converts to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law.  In contrast to those who would insist that Gentiles become Jews before becoming Christians, Paul writes that, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”   We enter into the life of the New Adam by being reborn in baptism as we put on Christ like a garment.  Being united to Him from the depths of our souls by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may become radiant with the gracious divine energies, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” (Gal. 5:22) The contrast between the plight of the first Adam, miserably enslaved to the fear of death in our world of corruption, and the holy glory that Christ shares with us is so great that Paul describes our salvation as nothing less than “a new creation.”  Our risen Lord raises us from death to life, making it possible for us to participate in the new day of His Kingdom even now, which is something that even the most exacting obedience to the best set of religious laws could never achieve.      

In the midst of our materialistic and consumeristic culture, it is easy to overlook St. Paul’s warning that “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  (1 Tim. 6: 9-10)   It was surely the love of money that led the rich man in today’s parable to become so enslaved to gratifying self-centered desire that he closed his heart completely to concern for his neighbors, even those so obviously suffering right before his eyes. Because he would not show love for poor Lazarus, he degraded himself to the point that he could not love God.   St. John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20) The Lord Himself taught that love of God and neighbor are the greatest of the commandments. (Matt. 22: 37-40).   It is no surprise, then, that the rich man experienced the torment of bitter regret after his death, for he was in the eternal presence of the Lord Whom he had rejected throughout his life.  He had turned away decisively from God’s love and was capable of perceiving the divine glory as only a burning flame.  

If we have become “a new creation” in Christ, then we must live as members of His Body, manifesting His love and mercy for our suffering neighbors each day of our lives.  We must do so in relation to people in our own city, as well as to those who suffer around the world, including the living icons of God who are currently undergoing such horribly tragic circumstances in the Holy Land.    His Eminence, Metropolitan SABA, has directed all the parishes of our Archdiocese “to collect aid for our brethren at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and to partake in the relief of their suffering while demonstrating the Christian communion of humanity in times of affliction…”[1] Beginning today and throughout this month, please put offerings marked “Holy Land” in the collection plate, which we will then send to the Archdiocese.  We must remember to place our almsgiving in the context of intensified prayer, especially for peace and blessing for those now suffering so terribly, and in renewed spiritual struggle to purify the desires of our hearts from self-centeredness in all its forms.  That is the only way that we will learn to respond to the “poor Lazaruses” of our day in light of the “new creation” of the God-Man, in whom “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)       







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