HOMILY ON THE WICKED HUSBANDMEN OR THE PRACTISE OF THE REMEMBRANCE OF GOD (Matthew 21: 33-44)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Brothers and Sisters, what is it that inspires people to do horrible and wicked things? The vinedressers, or "husbandmen" as they are called in the King James Bible, had everything they could ever want. They had a beautiful place to live, they had all the food they could eat, a job that kept them busy but didn't over-burden them. They also had a kindly boss. He gave them the land to cultivate, only asking for a portion of the grapes, raisins, and wine that would result from their efforts. That's all. But when the boss sent messengers to the vineyard to receive his portion, what happened? The vinedressers killed them. They killed the first group of messengers, and they killed the second group of messengers, and finally they killed the son and heir. Now we haven't forgotten the context of this parable. Jesus is teaching in the temple. The religious leaders are furious with Jesus and question his authority. We know that the parable is addressed to them, that the vineyard, the hedge, the winepress, the tower all refer to all the good things that God had given to His people. The land, the vineyard, is the Promised Land, the hedge is the Law of Moses, the winepress is the altar of sacrifice, and the tower is the temple. We remember these things, don't we? And the vinedressers represent the religious leaders, the priests, etc. who were responsible for caring for it all. But time after time they abandoned God, worshipped idols, defrauded the poor and the widow, killed the prophets, and eventually would cause the death of their own Messiah. This is the primary teaching of the parable. It is a rebuke that is designed to get those religious leaders to wake up and see what they were doing, and see what they were thinking. In other words, Jesus sought to shake them up so that they would repent. But it was not to be so.
As a secondary meaning, many have seen a message about tithing. Right? God has given us everything, but He expects us to give our portion, our "tithe" back to Him. He has given us the Church, which is the vineyard. He has given us the Good News of the Gospel, which is the hedge. He so loved the world (which means, in Greek, the "people") that He gave His only-begotten Son to die on the Cross that we might have eternal life, which is the wine-press. And what do you think the tower is? In the Song of Songs in the Bible we hear of a person who "is like the tower of David, built for an armory, on which there hang a thousand shields, all shields of mighty men." Who might this person be, who is provided to the Church for her defense? What do we sing in the Church? "Thou art a gold-entwined tower." The Mother of God, the Most Holy Virgin is the Tower whom our Lord and Master has placed to watch over and protect the Church. So the Lord has given us everything for our salvation and eternal life. He expects us to render Him His portion, as is due. That is the connection with tithing.
But another meaning to the parable lies in what I asked at the beginning: "What is it that inspires people to do horrible and wicked things?" In our lives there can be many things that cause us to do sinful or evil things, but today's parable wants to think about one particular thing. And what is it? The parable makes a point to say that the Master "went into a far country." This means that he, the Master, was not physically present there with them, he was far away. Remember what the Lord said to Thomas, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe." The situation here at the vineyard was something far worse than "when the cat's away the mice will play." This is "while the Master is away we will forget about Him altogether."
St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain once said that "When a man is too happy in this world, he forgets God and forgets death.” Too much attention to the fallen world, it's pleasures, it's attractions, it's comforts, and our mind, and our focus easily disconnect from God. To the holy fathers, the forgetfulness of God is one of the worst possible sins that human beings can commit. To the late Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel laureate, Orthodox Christian author, and Russian dissident, the cause for Russia's disasters in the last century, and the disasters that loom for the West in this century are due primarily to one thing: "Men have forgotten God" (See A. Solzhenitsyn, “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag”). If the vinedressers had reminded themselves daily of the care and love that the Master had bestowed upon them, they would have reciprocated that love and care. But they forgot him, as we often do God. Someone once said "Most Christians live their lives and behave themselves as if God didn't exist at all." This is the deep meaning of the parable for us today. The Lord wanted to shake up the religious leaders in the temple for their repentance. He wants the parable to do the same for us! Remembering God is vital for our salvation. St. Augustine, in his work "On the Trinity," wrote about the remembrance of God. He says that before we can know and love God at all, we must first remember Him. Another holy father, St Peter of Damascus, says that we must:
"Be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things. When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you; when you see the sky, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator; when you put on your clothing, acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life. In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St. Paul commends (cf. I Thess. 5:16).”(+ St. Peter of Damascus, “Book I: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge,” The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 3)
And St Herman of Alaska famously said: “And I, a sinner, have been trying to love God for more than forty years, and cannot say that I perfectly love Him. If we love someone we always remember them and try to please them; day and night our heart is occupied with this. Is that how you...love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments? For our good, for our happiness at least let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will.'”
Let's do our best, dear ones, to struggle against the distractions of this world, the bright, colorful, flashing lights of the fishing lures of Satan, and, instead, wrestle our minds back to the remembrance of God. It isn't easy, and it must be aided by God's grace and much prayer, but we CAN do it, if we choose to.
HOMILY ON THE RICH YOUNG MAN
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
"If you want to enter into life," said Jesus to the rich young man, "keep the commandments.” The young ruler said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 'Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth up."
Jesus says to the rich young ruler, Just keep the commandments and you will inherit eternal life. Simple, right? Absolutely! But the young man wants to make sure WHICH commandments are most critical. He asks, "Which ones?" What he really wants to know is which commandments are essential, and which are not. What he really wants to know is can he ignore the "non-essential" ones and just focus on the big ones? I remember years ago seeing a copy of an Orthodox Prayer Book in English. I forget now who published it, but I do remember looking through the various prayers and seeing asterisks next to some and not next to others. "How odd," I thought, so I hunted around the book for an explanation. In the front of the book there was a little note saying that the asterisk indicates the prayers that "must be said." I saw the same thing once in a little service book for the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Asterisks. These prayers are essential, and presumably, the others may be skipped. I wondered to myself, "Who makes these decisions? Who decides which prayers are sufficient and which may be discarded? The rich young ruler wanted to know from Jesus, which commandments have the asterisks? Which commandments are sufficient and which may be discarded?
Jesus gave the answer: The basic commandments of the Law, the Ten commandments, and the additional one to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Now here's a little interesting aside. I don't know if you noticed, but when Jesus listed the Ten Commandments, He left out all the ones with reference to God. In other words He left the first part, the first 4, if you will. He left out Number 1.) "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," Number 2.) "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image," Number 3.) "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," and number 4.) "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." He only gave him the moral laws, the second part, or the second tablet. Also, remember, He only gave him the second part of the two greatest laws given by Jesus in Matthew 22: 36-40, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." He omitted the first half, the part about God. Why? St Jerome, earlier in his commentary, says "But because he had styled Him Good Master, and had not confessed Him as God, or as the Son of God, He tells him, that in comparison of God there is no holy person to be called good, of whom it is said, "Confess unto the Lord, for he is good; (Ps. 118:1) and therefore He says, "There is one good, that is, God.""
So, perhaps the Lord is pointing out, in a didactical, pedagogical way, that the rich man has a relationship with rules, but not with the Ruler of heaven and earth. He has a zeal for God, but not according to any direct knowledge of God, to paraphrase St Paul (see Romans 10:2). He has no idea that he is talking to God incarnate. He has no idea that he is speaking to the Messiah, the Saviour promised by God. He is pursuing asterisks. He has no idea that the Living God is pursuing him! So what does the rich young man do next? He says to Jesus, "I have kept these commandments; I have obeyed these commandments from the time I was a small child. What am I lacking?"
Sometimes, no, all the time, when we are trying to learn from the Scriptures, we have to look at the context of the reading. Especially, we have to look at what came just before our reading. Do you know what happened just before this rich young man approached Jesus? It'll blow your minds. Listen to what happened just prior to today's reading: "Then there were brought unto him (Jesus) little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples tried to turn them away. But Jesus said, "Allow the little children, and do not forbid them to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them, and departed from that place" (Matthew 19: 14-15). This placement is no accident. This chronology speaks volumes. Here the little children are seen flocking to Jesus and He blesses them. The rich young man boasts that even from his childhood he did everything right, he assumed that he lacked nothing. But in fact, he lacked everything! There was nothing he needed to DO, no asterisks to search out, no information to be gathered. All he needed to do was to become like one of those dear little children and run to Jesus, be embraced by Jesus, be blessed by Jesus. But, he didn't do that, did he? In fact, he walked away from Jesus, in sorrow. And why did he do that? Because Jesus showed him who he really worshiped. Jesus showed him who his "god" really was. And perhaps this, above all other reasons, was why Jesus left the "God" bits out of His list of commandments given to this rich young man. Why? Because he himself had left God out. And why had he left God out? Because his "god" was his possessions. His "god" was his wealth and his easy life. Listen to what St John Chrysostom says: "Nothing is so incongruous in a Christian, and foreign to his character, as to seek ease and rest. (For a Christian) to be engrossed with the present life is foreign to our confession and calling...To some their wealth...is a god. Are not these too idolaters?" Solomon in Proverbs says, "Those who trust in their riches will fall" (Proverbs 11:28). And St Paul, writing to Timothy, says, "Command those who are rich in this present world not... to put their hope in wealth...but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything" (1 Timothy 6:17). The rich young man walked away sad because his heart was with his treasure, rather than with God (Cf. Matthew 6:21). He missed out on the one thing needful, to sit at the feet of Jesus and cling to His every word, like Mary, the Sister of Martha and Lazarus (see Luke 10: 39-41). St. Ignatius Brianchaninov makes this observation, he says: "It is only necessary to seek one thing: to be with Jesus. The man who remains with Jesus is rich, even if he is poor with regard to material things. Whoever desires the earthly more than the heavenly loses both the earthly and the heavenly. But whoever seeks the heavenly, is Lord of the whole world." (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, Patericon). Amen.
Homily: Do Demons Really Exist?
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In this morning's Gospel reading, from the King James version, we heard the father of the afflicted boy diagnose his child's malady by declaring to Jesus, "He is lunatick." On the OCA website it utilizes the New King James version which says "he is an epileptic." The New International Version says "he has seizures." Most English translations use one of these three words: lunatic, epileptic, or seizures. Only one of these is accurate according to the Greek original, and that is lunatic. Of course we think of the word "lunatic" as someone who is crazy, out of control, psychotic. But what it meant originally was moonstruck, someone affected by phases of the moon or malevolent moon beams. Only Matthew uses this word and he only uses it one other time, and that, too, is in connection with healing (see Matthew 4: 24).
The problem here is that none of these words are accurate when it comes to defining what was causing this child to throw himself into the fire and into the water. None of these words explain why he fell to the ground, foamed at the mouth, gnashed his teeth or went rigid, as St Mark describes (see Mark 9:28). The father blames it on the moon. Modernist translators, who are ever eager to demythologize all things supernatural, want to blame it on physical diseases. But the truth is quite different. The boy was afflicted by demons. He was demon-possessed. Do we believe that demons exist? Of course we do. Jesus does, the Church does, and we do.
Brethren, it's important to note that the ancients were not nearly as ignorant as we might mistakenly suppose. They certainly DID know about mental illness. The ancient pagan Greeks also knew about it, and had developed therapies to treat it. The early church fathers also were quite aware of mental illness. Mother Melania of Calistoga once wrote: "The Church Fathers routinely refer to medical treatment of the insane with no hint of disapproval...This confirms that the Fathers generally believed in mental illness and that it was distinct from demonic possession." St. John Chrysostom says, “Physicians, when they are kicked, and shamefully handled by the insane, then most of all pity them, and take measures for their perfect cure, knowing that the insult comes of the extremity of their disease." No mention of demons at all.
However, there is no doubt that the Lord Jesus not only believes that there are demons, but He also teaches that a good part of our spiritual life must be dedicated to warfare against them. How do we know this? Because when He taught His disciples to pray, He ended that prayer with the words "deliver us from the evil one!" The Church also believes in the reality of demons and demon-possession, and provides us with many weapons to use against them. Examples? Three prayers of exorcism are read over any candidate, even wee babies, before they are baptized. (Question: You might ask how a forty day old infant might be afflicted with demons? Answer: Not through any sin of its own, but by means of a demon-attracting life lived by its parents, or found in its environment. This is what the Scriptures mean when they say the "sins of the parents are visited upon the children" (Deuteronomy 5:9). What other weapons does the Church give us to fight against the demons? The Great Prayers of Exorcism given in the Trebnik. These are read by the Bishop or priest over someone afflicted by or possessed by demons. Sometimes these prayers have been read over a multitude of people, or even whole towns. There is an amazing story that I heard on the Holy Mountain back in the 90's, and was set down my my friend and classmate Archimandrite Vasileios (Bakoyannis) in a little booklet called "Weapons Against Satanic Influence."
"There was once a famous sorcerer who went to Kolwezi, a town in Zaire, in 1984, and set about curing people of their afflictions. Hieromonk Meletios, a missionary priest from the Monastery of Gregoriou on Mt. Athos, was an eye-witness to the events that took place there and related that in October, 1994, the sorcerer returned to the same town, preceded by an extensive publicity campaign. Banners were stretched over the main streets and loud speakers announced his arrival. They said that "the Savior" is returning. They had also set up a platform on one of the main roads where the sorcerer would stand. Lots of people hurried to make their way there to present themselves before him in order to be cured of their diseases. The "savior" arrived. There was pandemonium. His timetable was such that he would remain in the town for a whole week.
On the first day he went to the platform to heal the sick that were waiting anxiously. He said his prayers but nothing happened. Three hours went by and still there were no healings. On day two, he said his prayers again. But again he had nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers on the street continued to announce his presence in the town. On the third day, he still had nothing to show for his efforts. The people began to feel uneasy. On day four, there was still nothing happening and the people began to get angry.
But all hope was not lost because there were still three days left. He did everything he could, but still without affecting any result at all. And then, on the last day, overwhelmed with confusion, he was forced to admit to the disappointed crowd that this was the first time that anything like this had happened to him and that it had happened there in Kolwezi. Well, what really happened?
Fr. Meletios, the Orthodox missionary, had not been idle. He had used the visit of the sorcerer as an opportunity to shame the devil, to demonstrate the power of the Orthodox Church and to glorify God. Every time the shaman mounted the platform to do his "healings," Fr. Meletios and all the Orthodox Christians gathered in the Church of St. George and chanted the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God, and then read the prayers of exorcism of St. Basil the Great. In confessing that this was the first time that anything like this had happened to him, the famous shaman did not know that he was being opposed by the spiritual weapons of the Orthodox Church."
So what are some other weapons given to us by the Church to combat Satan and his evil spirits? The Sign of the Cross. Each time we make the sign of the Cross, either on ourselves or on others, we perform a small exorcism. The devil flees from the sign of the Cross. At baptisms when the water is blessed crosswise by the bishop or priest, he says: "May all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of Thy Cross!" What else? The Holy Mysteries: Baptism, Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Unction, all of these are given to us as a means to drive out Satan. All of them repel the demons, but they also free us from the sins that cling to our souls and give ground in us for those demons. Are there more? Well, what did we learn in today's Gospel? "This kind (of demon) goes not out but by prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17: 21). We saw the power of the Church praying together in Africa - how the demonic powers of the sorcerer utterly evaporated. This is only one of many reasons to be in Church more frequently rather than less. But also our own private prayers, and our prayers in the Prayer Book, these are very effective in driving away the evil spirits. Take, for example, in the Evening Prayers: "thwart the enemies, fleshly and bodiless, that war against me. And deliver me, O Lord, from vain thoughts and evil desires which defile me." And again, "O Jesus, Good Shepherd of Thy sheep, deliver me not over to the sedition of the serpent, and leave me not to the will of Satan, for the seed of corruption is in me." And again, "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the sake of Thy most honourable Mother, and Thy bodiless angels, Thy Prophet and Forerunner and Baptist, the God-inspired apostles, the radiant and victorious martyrs, the holy and God-bearing fathers, and through the intercessions of all the saints, deliver me from the besetting presence of the demons."And who can forget the prayer that we say right before sleep? "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His face. As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of them that love God and who sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Rejoice, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee." Listen to these. Do we often neglect our evening prayers? When we do, we drop our own weapons, given to us by God, and leave them behind. The Church also provides us with many other tools; the Prayers Against Demonic Snares, the Prayer Against the Evil Eye, Prayer for a Home Troubled by Evil Spirits, all of these are read by a Bishop or Priest. But probably the best and simplest means of thwarting and driving away evil spirits is the Jesus Prayer. The Holy Fathers call the Jesus Prayer "the Whip of Christ" which drives away the "moneychangers" of evil spirits and their intrusive thoughts. This is why the holy fathers, and all contemporary elders, spiritual fathers and mothers, all recommend to us the use of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" every day as part of our prayer rule. Brothers and Sisters, may we never bury these talents of tools and weapons in the earth, but use them, increase them, and employ them each and every day in our lives. By doing so, our combat will be well-pleasing to God, and salvific for our souls. Amen.
SERMON ON JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA - Matthew 14:22-34
August 21, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Beloved, here's your quiz. Do you remember what I said to you some months back about who was the first person to see the risen Christ? Not Mary Magdalene but someone else? Yes, the fathers say clearly that it was the Mother of God. Others didn't recogize Him, they thought He was the gardener. But the fathers say that the Theotokos saw Him first and recognized Him immediately. There are many texts in the Gospels that speak of people "seeing" Jesus, or wanting to "see" Jesus. For instance, Luke 19: 2-3 says: "And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature." And in John 12:20-21 it says: "And there were certain Greek-speakers among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, ...saying, Sir, we would see Jesus." This is SO funny, because these out-of-towners came to Philip in order to see Jesus, but the Lord Jesus chastises this same Philip for not "seeing" Him at all. The Lord said: "“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?"
In today's Gospel we encounter a similar problem. It says: "Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear (Matthew 14: 25-26). What happened? These are Jesus' disciples; they know him better than anyone. They know what Jesus looks like. Their eyes were not confused because of the storm, the wind, or the waves. It says that "when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea." Not "when the disciples saw a form gliding toward them" or "when the disciples saw something that looked like it might be Jesus walking on the sea." It says "when the disciples saw Him." And when the disciples saw Him what did they say? "It is a ghost!" They are not comforted by the sight of Jesus. St Matthew says they were "troubled" or at least that's the word that many translators use. But the word in Greek (ἐταράχθησαν) is actually much stronger. It's closer to something like "shocked with terror." So why are they terrified at the sight of Jesus walking on the water? Hadn't they seen Him work many miracles - even raising people from the dead?
Yes, of course they had. But they had never been separated from Him like this before, and the very moment that they stepped into the boat, they were afraid. That's what the fathers say. The disciple were not happy when Jesus "compelled them" to enter the ship without Him. They were fishermen. They knew the weather. They knew the signs, they knew the treachery of the water. They felt secure and protected as long as He was physically with them. But now they were afraid, and this is precisely what the Lord wanted! He wanted them to develop their faith, and not to rely solely on His physical presence with them. St John Chrysostom said:
"(The Lord) allowed for them to be tossed the whole night, exciting their hearts by fear, and inspiring them with greater desire and more lasting recollection of Him; for this reason He did not stand by them immediately, but...(instead) teaches them not to seek a speedy riddance of coming evil, but to bear manfully such things as befall them. But when they thought that they were delivered, then was their fear increased, whence it follows, 'And seeing him walking upon the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a vision, and through fear they cried out.' For the Lord always does this; when He is to rescue from any evil, He brings in things terrible and difficult. For since it is impossible that our temptation should continue a long time, when the warfare of the righteous is to be finished, then He increases their conflicts, desiring to make greater gain of them; which He did also in Abraham, making his conflict his trial of the loss of his son."
So what does this mean in English? It means that the Lord allowed this "test" for His disciples in order to strengthen their faith in Him. He said to one of them on another occasion: "Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." "The love of Christ is tested by adversity" says St Mark the Ascetic, and St John of Karpathos says that "God who watches the contest, often allows us for some definite period of time to be trampled by our enemies, but it is the mark of a noble and courageous soul not to despair in adversity." The disciples had to learn not to despair. They had to learn not to fear, but instead to have faith, to believe, and to have confidence in Christ - even when He is invisible, even when your mind deceives you and your thoughts make you afraid. And this is the same lesson that all of us need to learn.
Peter was the chief of the disciples. He too had been terrified. He too saw Jesus with his eyes, but his fallen brain told him that this had to be a spirit, a phantasm, a specter. But when Jesus identified himself by using the Divine Name "Be not afraid - I AM" Peter's thinking was jolted, it was dragged from the earth back to heaven, and He was able both to see and to know who Jesus was. That is what gave him the courage to call Him "Lord" rather than "a ghost." Real faith only comes by means of trials. As the Holy Apostle James, Brother of the Lord, says, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and whole, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4). The Apostle Paul says "And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). And a last quote from St John of Karpathos again: "He allows us to suffer adversities so that in the end He may give us eternal joy and glory."
So, what does it mean to be whole and perfect? What does it mean to acquire eternal joy and glory? It is the ability to see Jesus, as He truly is. It is the fulness of faith - which has every confidence that no matter what our situation, no matter what our trials, no matter what our sorrows, Christ will come to rescue us. He may not come immediately, and He may not always come in the way we want Him to, but He will come and He will save us. Amen.