The Orthodox Pages

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TALK BY FATHER

MATTHEW ARNOLD
27th Jan 2011

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Matthew 5:14–19

The Lord said unto his disciples, Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

 

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

I was thinking, “Does this mean we have to demonstrate our good works?” But this doesn’t seem right. Because elsewhere Matthew says, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. (Mt. 6:1) Surely, this can’t be an incitement to pride? How could the Lord, who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Mt. 11:29), exhort us to such things? It seems to me that the “light,” of which the evangelist speaks, is the light of grace, and the “good works” are only possible with grace. But it is the good works which people should see, not us, and then, in order to glorify God.

As a simple comparison, we can say that earthly light is necessary in order to see things. In the same way, we need the Light of grace in order to see heavenly and spiritual things. So, just as we need a torch in order to see in the dark, so we should be spiritual torches, so that men, living in the spiritual darkness of this world, may see the spiritual truth. Just as we esteem the light more than the torch, so men should esteem our light, which is not our light but God’s, more than us. Indeed, when it is not dark we have no need of the torch, we often even forget that it exists. Just as a torch has no comeliness, we, in comparison to God have no beauty and are ugly. Yet we are transformed by the light of grace, and only the works of grace can lead men to glorify our Father which is in heaven.

What are the works then? We can say many things, inspired by Holy Scripture and the commandments. There are of course acts of mercy towards our fellow man, almsgiving, kindness etc. inspired by love of one’s neighbour. There are also higher works of which the Holy Fathers of the Church speak. These are the inner works of love: prayer, obedience, repentance, patience, etc. Now, the outer works are inspired by the inner ones, and both spring from the love of God. For, in the measure with which we love God and are granted the vision of him, we receive his disposition, which is the love of all men.

I want to pause a moment to consider love. Love is the hardest of all the virtues, and love of God is unspeakably harder still. But we are made in the image and likeness of the Lord himself, and so perfect love is like his love. Divine love is totally giving, or rather a total giving of one’s self for the other. It expects absolutely nothing in return, for even God loves us and gives us the freedom to reject him and reject his life which he freely gives us. We could say that love is not the physical acts we perform for others (the giving of gifts, or food, or a kind word and the like) but the inner attitude with which we act. If I give a present hoping to get one myself, then I am not acting in the spirit of love. But as S. Paul says, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1Cor 13:3) Charity here is love.

This totally self-emptying love is hard. Indeed it is a cross and therefore we suffer, because, in this earthly and fallen world, total giving leads to death. If I give all my goods to feed the poor and I have no money, I shall have no clothing, no warmth, no food and I shall die. In like manner, to love God is to give one’s self totally and unconditionally to him, not considering any earthly thing. The desert Fathers “renounced the world.” They gave away all their earthly belongings, and some, as it were, even renounced food. So how do we overcome this death? Where do we find the courage to love God? Well, S. John the Theologian tells us, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1John 4:19) And S. Silouan tells us that everyone has tasted a little of the grace of God. So since we have tasted of grace, we have had a taste of divine love too. Moreover, Christ has shown us the fruit of love, namely, resurrection from the dead.

Of course, food and clothing is only the earthly side of the matter. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Mt. 6:33) When we start to love God and to humble ourselves, the Fathers teach us, this attracts grace. And the grace of God is knowable, it is not just theory. When we taste this grace, even in small measure, we know that it is better than anything else we have experienced in this life. We know that God first loved us and, in his longsuffering, was waiting for us to turn to him. If we continue we shall be strengthened in our endeavour, and God, who is merciful, will give us more grace, as S. Silouan testifies.

What I am trying to say, in my clumsy manner, is that, “Here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” (Heb 13:14) This world is temporal and will pass away (cf. Mt. 24:35) but we are called to live in eternity with God. But I haven’t yet answered my question, “How do we overcome this death?” It seems to me that we must remember that Christ has already won the victory. We must remember every taste of grace which we receive, during prayer or in the Liturgy or at other times. We must remember every experience of God’s providence and mercy towards us. This can be our incentive and our motivation to follow him and to keep following him, to strive to keep his commandments and “That this whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and without sin,” as we say in the divine services.