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TALK ON THE APOSTLE AND GOSPEL
READINGS FOR SUNDAY 29/11/09
26th NOVEMBER 2009
During the past two Sundays the Apostle readings were from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. The Epistle can be divided into two parts: the first part which is theological and theoretical in character and the second which is called the practical part of the Epistle. This Sunday’s reading is taken from the beginning of the second part. The Christians who with their baptism were joined to the body of the Church are called to live and personally put into practice the mystery of their salvation in Christ. The reading underlines the need for unity in the Church and reveals to the faithful the ways of life and conduct each must have for the other. The way in which will increase the unity between them, the unity of the one ecclesiastical body of which they belong as members. Let then hear the reading;
“Brethren, I the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
1) “Brethren, I the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called”
The Greek has “Brethren, I the prisoner in the Lord”, not of the Lord. The “in the Lord” means “for the Lord”, for the sake of the Lord and his Gospel. It is not the Lord that had made him a prisoner but he of his own choice had made himself a prisoner for the Lord and the promised kingdom. He beseeches the Ephesians to walk worthily in the vocation that they have been called, a vocation which they have been called to by God. To walk, a verb especially loved by Paul means to live, to act in a manner according to their calling. The life of a Christian, from the moment of his baptism and entry into the Church until the time of his departure from this world to enter the kingdom of God is a long continuous journey, which he is obliged to follow living according to God’s will. The steadfast and consistent life in Christ is to walk worthily in the vocation which is a common obligation of all the faithful before God who has called us with a holy calling (2 Timothy 1:9).
2) “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love”
Some of the characteristic marks or virtues of the Christian life, of walking worthily in the vocation, are humility, meekness, longsuffering and the forbearance of our brethren in love. According to St. Nicodemos the Agiorite, humility is the highest virtue of the life in Christ, it is the foundation for every other virtue. It declares man’s deliverance from egocentricity, from over confidence, self importance and self conceitedness and reveals his surrender to the hands of God. With humility we must also have meekness and longsuffering. Meekness is to have a gentle character than doesn’t anger, but remains calm and peaceful at all times. Longsuffering is the virtue of patience, but also refers to a forgiving and charitable nature. The person who is longsuffering is great hearted and full of love. He is tolerant and contains his anger and is not easily moved to seek revenge against those that seek him harm. Christians who conduct themselves with humility and meekness follow the example of the Lord who said he was meek and humble in heart. (Matth. 11:29) By showing longsuffering to our brethren we mimic God’s longsuffering for the world. The expression of longsuffering is the forbearance of our brethren in love which Paul places at the end of the verse. As members of the body of Christ and partakers of God’s grace we owe it to be tolerant to our brethren and this is achieved by love. With love everything can be tolerant. Sincere Christ-like love gives us the strength to show tolerance and patience for the weaknesses and evil conduct of our fellow men.
3) “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”
The unity of the Spirit is the unity of the body of the Church, the unity of the faithful, who are in fact the work and gift of the Holy Spirit. But this unity is wounded by the schisms and divisions caused by the sins of men. That is why Paul prompts the Ephesians to show eagerness, to struggle and endeavour to preserve the unity of the Church. This unity is achieved in the bond of peace. Peace which is again the fruit and gift of the Holy Spirit comprises the bond, the strength to cultivate and guarantee the unity of the faithful. When Christians live united in the bond of Christ’s love and peace then it is easy for them to cast from them anything that might divide or disrupt the unity brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church.
4) “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling”
The Church comprises of one body – the body of Christ. Members of this body are all who believe in Christ. By belonging to the one body of the Church we are in communion and in an unbroken unity with Christ who is the head of the body and with each other who make up the other members of the body. The Church is one body because it is sustained and given life by the one Spirit: the Holy Spirit of God. The “one hope of your calling” is common to all the faithful and is another element which works for the unity of the body of the Church. What is this one hope? It is the hope of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God. The resurrection of the dead is the common expectation of all. And our entry into the kingdom of God, which Christ said was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world, (Matthew 25:34) comprises the “living hope” (1Peter 1:3), “which is laid up for you in heaven.” (Colossians 1:5)
5) “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”
If in the previous verse Paul told us what comprises the unity of the Church – the one body, the one Spirit and the one hope, now he stresses the source of this unity which is the one Lord, one faith and one baptism. Paul is continually stressimg the number one possibly to show the difference between the Church of Christ and the religions of the Pagan Greeks and Romans who had many gods, many beliefs and many hopes. The Church recognizes only one Lord who is the source, the head, the faith, the hope and saviour of the Church. And because there is only one Lord there can only be one faith, and this faith we confess in the name of the one Lord. And because the Lord is one and his death and resurrection was one then in similar manner there can be only one baptism because baptism is the mystery by which we are joined to the one body of the Church by mystically partaking of this one death and resurrection.
6) “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all”
Paul continues his comments on the unity of the Church by mentioning the source of this unity who is the one God and Father of all. The one God who is above all others: The one God who permeates and penetrates through all the members of the Church and enters the complete body. Thus he dwells in each and everyone of us, for as one unit, one Church, we are the temple of God.
7) “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
The diversity of the graces that God gives to the faithful with the purpose of building the complete Church comprises another factor that works for the unity of the Church. The grace given separately to each faithful member of the Church are the many and diverse graces of the Holy Spirit. But how are these graces shared out to the faithful? Well not by chance or arbitrarily but according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Christ shares out the gifts of grace according to the measure that he knows will spiritually benefit not only the individual but also the Church as a complete unit. It is this that Paul is trying to underline to the Ephesians: that the sharing out of the gifts does not divide the Church because someone has one gift and someone else another. All come from the one source – Christ who gives to each for the common good of all.
The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke
“At that time, a certain ruler came unto Jesus, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
This Sunday’s Gospel begins almost exactly as the Gospel we heard two weeks ago where the teacher asked Jesus “What shall I do to inherit eternal life”. Then we were told that the teacher asked the question tempting Jesus. In this week’s Gospel the person is a certain rich ruler who according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, who gives us the same story, is a young man. (Matth, 19:16-26) The difference of the teacher two weeks ago and the young man of today’s Gospel is that the young man came to Jesus and asked the same question with good and honest intentions. Most people who came to Jesus came to ask of things worldly and temporal or as in most of the cases to seek a cure of their body, a miracle so that they could continue their physical life in health. This young man seeks none of these things and is only interested in something deeper, spiritual and eternal. He sought heaven and desired eternal life. He wanted to become a partaker of the divine nature, in other words to accept God inside him and become a god by grace. The young man’s orientation was a surprise to many as it is today when we see a young man interested in the spiritual life. Sadly it is considered strange and bizarre for a young person to abandon the dreams of this life, which are only just beginning to open up before him and to be preoccupied with things uncertain and non existence for many as is the Kingdom of heaven. And if these things actually do exist a person should only be preoccupied with them in old age a little before departing from this world and never sacrifice the pleasures of this world for them. This is how the majority of men in every society think.
What then is eternal life for which the rich young man showed great interest? Is it a different life that begins immediately after this present physical life? The answer is no. It is Christ himself and our union with him. When the faithful person becomes a dwelling place for Christ then he carries within him the “eternal life”, he has within him the Kingdom of God. This is what Christ has told us “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) This mystery of eternal life we live from now in this life if we don’t live according to this world and don’t live according to the passions of the flesh.
When the young man asked Christ the way to inherit eternal life, Christ replied: “You know the commandments of God, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother”. In other words he directs him to observe the will of God by sacrificing his own will. Christ tells him to sacrifice his own ideas and views on life which is to take care of the flesh and to accept that which God has prescribed. The sacrifice of his own will for the sake of the divine commandments is a taste of death within his own body which leads to life. It is a spiritual exercise, a hardship, a pain which directs the young man to have a foretaste of eternal life. He will begin to taste of the great treasure which Christ will tell him about further down.
The fathers, interpreting the commandments of God, say that: they are not dead commandments, but God himself is within these in a mysterious way. And whoever struggles to accept and applies even one of these commandments within himself, accepts God himself who is eternal life. This is the meaning of Christ words “And I know that his commandment is life everlasting”. (John 12:50)
By keeping the commandments with the help of God’s grace, with love, faith and dedication to God, a person begins the journey to inherit eternal life. It is a journey which involves sacrifice and burial of the desires of our physical nature, but which also draws life from the relationship of love and communion with God which is life eternal.
After Christ told the rich young man what he must observe in answer to his question, the young man replies that he has observed all these things from his young and asks of Jesus to reveal to him if there is anything else he needs to observe: what has he left out, to what does he need to give special attention? The Lord now reveals to the youth another path: the path of perfection, the path of the Cross and sacrifice, a path that he himself followed. The Lord told him that he still lacked one thing. In Matthew’s version the Lord says “If thou wilt be perfect”. What he is telling the young man is that if he wants to go that extra step and become perfect and become one with God then he has to follow the road of the Cross. Sell what you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me. To follow Christ does not mean to believe and have faith in Christ, but to follow without conditions and give himself entirely to Christ, to follow by his example the path of sacrifice and death. This path is the most difficult and only a very few finish the journey. It involves hunger, thirst, humiliation, beatings, spittings and many more things which the person must willingly endure even up to giving up one’s life as did the many martyrs.
To follow Christ is a great sacrifice, but before following a person must be willing to make smaller sacrifices; that is why before telling him to follow him, Christ tells the young man to sell what he has and give to the poor. By observing the commandment he would receive an experience of eternal life, but he was searching for something greater and more complete, he wanted the complete treasure. But for this his sacrifice must also be complete. That is why Christ tells him to sell everything and not just a part of his belongings. The things which up to now comprise for you the earthly treasures, sell and get rid of them. If you give greatly you will receive greatly: you will receive the wage according to the sacrifice and the reward is the treasure in heaven, in other words eternal life. The sell and give to the poor shows that love for Christ involves love for all our brethren especially the least of our brothers who are in great need.
This high calling the young man received from Christ was in fact too heavy for him to bear and had to decline. He indeed desired greatly eternal life, but he also loved greatly his worldly treasures. And the more a person has, the harder it becomes. The young man was enslaved by his passion of wealth. The person who desires the Kingdom of God cannot be divided in himself: he cannot draw life from two sources; He cannot have a part life in God and at the same time for his heart to be attached to worldly materials. When he gives himself to the world, he separates himself from God and eternal life and dies, but when he gives himself totally to God he dies to the world and lives eternally with God, and no matter how many deaths this world gives him, they cannot deprive him of eternal life.
As a final result the young man abandoned Christ because his love for wealth was stronger than his desire for eternal life. “He was very sorrowful: for he was very rich”. Through his own will and choice he put to death his hopes for eternal life and became a slave to death. By preferring wealth he preferred death. He also put to death the love for the poor because he couldn’t rise above his own self love. By his action he actually denied the two main commandments which he claimed he observed from his youth. He denied the love for God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
When someone resorts to Christ to ask him about a problem that troubles him, he must have humility and be willing to do what he prescribes just as when one goes to a doctor for an ailment and the doctor will prescribe the appropriate medicine. The young man didn’t, because he was enslaved by his love for wealth and greed, but also because he didn’t recognize Christ as God. This is clear from the beginning of the story: he approaches Christ and calls his “Good Master” but he didn’t consider his as God. That is why Christ replies “why do you call me good for only God is good”.
As a final analysis the young man observed the divine commandments externally without his heart and soul taking part. He was continually concerned for his property without lifting the eyes of his soul to heaven and God. For man to be able to observe the commandments he has to begin to live a holy life. It is a continual struggle to leave behind the life according to the flesh and devote oneself to a life according to God. Monks and Nuns leave this world and close themselves within the confines of the monastery for the very purpose of putting to death the passions that keep them earthbound. There they can more easily devote themselves to the remembrance of God day and night, while awake and while sleeping, without breaking the relationship of love and communion with him. They live from now “in part” eternal life and await for their complete participation. For most of us this monastic life is an extreme and certainly it is not for the majority but only for those who have such a calling. Normal life is to live in the world and be a part of community life. This undoubtedly needs a certain amount of worldly possessions: a house, furniture, a car, some money in the bank etc. I don’t think that Christ expects us to sell everything and give it all to the poor, but we should not let our possessions take hold of our life that they become a source which keeps our minds attached to them that we forget that God exists.
We should remember at all times that everything in this world belongs to God and if we have wealth beyond our needs then we should see this not as our wealth but as wealth given to us by God for a purpose. We are just his stewards who have been given charge of looking after God’s wealth and putting it where it will do the most good. We can liken money to the spiritual talents Christ mentions in the parable of the talents. The parable is about the spiritual graces God gives to each and everyone of us, but here we can use the parable to explain how we should understand our wealth. To one he gave ten talents to another five, to another two and to another one. The person with the ten talents invested then wisely and made ten more, so also the person with five and with two. They transformed the talents into spiritual wealth, into heavenly treasure which is what we also must do with our earthly treasures. When we hide our wealth we become like the unworthy person who hid the Lord’s talent without investing it to gain even the least interest from the bank. This is what Christ means when he said “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Note that he doesn’t say a rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God but that “how hardly” in other words it is difficult “yes”, but not impossible. When the Apostles heard this saying they were greatly puzzled. Christ’s words incorporated the majority of men because although not everyone is rich, yet everyone possesses certain things which he needs to live a normal life, even if this is just a small patch of land to grow vegetables. The apostles themselves indeed left everything for Christ but they understood that they were an exception because they had with them the richness of Christ who sustained them with his divine words, but most people were not in a position to give away their very livelihood. Who then could be saved? To this Christ replied: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” Thus it is not impossible for rich men to be saved, it all depends on how they use their wealth and as Christ said elsewhere “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. (Matth. 6: 21) Or we can reverse this and say “for where your heart is there also is your treasure”.