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Sons of the Most High

Sunday, October 5/18

19th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyr Charitina; Holy Hierarchs of Moscow.

The Lord said: Just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.Luke 6:31-36

Glory be to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St Luke is part of the Sermon on the Plain. When you read it, it sounds familiar yet strange, because we usually read and sing from the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by St Matthew, which is not identical. An open secret among preachers is that when you preach from place to place you tend to repeat yourself. The exact details and emphasis will vary each time, but in a given week on the road I’ve covered the same sermon half a dozen times in as many places. Here in Luke’s record of the Sermon on the Plain, we have the privilege of hearing Christ preach a different version of the Beatitudes, the Our Father, and today’s teaching on the Golden Rule.

At the time of Christ there were half a dozen religions we would categorize as Judaisms. The Sadducees, temple priests, believed only the five books of Moses. Another group, the Pharisees, accepted in addition a long list of prophetic and historical texts as scripture, including the book of Tobit which you’ll still find in our Orthodox Bible. Tobit was written between 100-200BC.

In the fourth chapter, the elder Tobit gives advice to his son Tobias. The whole chapter is full of simple wisdom. But in verse 15, he gives us one of the earliest citations of the Golden Rule: “What you hate, do not do to anyone else.” (Tobit 4:15)

Not long before the birth of Christ, a man asked Rabbi Hillel, “Teach me the whole Torah in one sentence.” The rabbi responded, “Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain before learning the Law and you say: Teach me the whole of the Torah in one sentence! But here is the principle of the Torah: What you yourself hate, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary: go and study it.”

When Christ gives the golden rule in Matt 7:12, he includes almost the same comment: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

I’ve heard it raised as a criticism of Christianity that the Golden Rule isn’t original with Jesus. It’s not even unique to Christianity; Buddhist teachers say the same thing. I would suggest that we should expect some commonalities among religions that have survived to this day. Every wheel has to be at least approximately round in order to work at all. Any religious system that said, “Do terrible things to your neighbor and be really evil all the time” would not survive to be passed on for many generations. Like a stopped clock that is still right twice a day, we have to expect the world’s religions and philosophies to get a few things right from time to time; or else none of them would have lasted this long.

But while “Do unto others as you’d have them do to you” is the easiest thing Christ taught us, Christ doesn’t stop with a common-sense rule that normal human beings can carry out if they feel like it. He pushes further:

“If you love only the people who love you, should God be impressed? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good to those who do good to you, is that worthy of congratulations? Even sinners do that! And if you lend to people who can repay you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting repayment in full.

You love people who love you back? Oh, good for you! What a hero you are.

I’ve known people who said, “If you offer love and respect, and the other person doesn’t love and respect you back, then move on. You don’t need that kind of people in your life.” That’s Facebook wisdom for you.

You lend money to people who can pay you back? That’s just great, you’re a real model of generosity there.

In the Philippines, where everybody is constantly borrowing — and where everybody is poor so they really can’t pay each other back — I preached constantly: Do not loan! If you have it, then give it. Do not borrow: If you need it, ask for it. Humble yourselves, share your surplus, and be a blessing to one another.

Do not lend what you can give. All you do is turn your brother into your slave. Now he owes you, and you’re his creditor. How much of that stress can your relationship take before you can’t stand the sight of each other? And when we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” did you think that was all metaphor? Your brother, whom Christ died for: Release him from the chain of his debt to you.

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For he is kind to the unthankful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”

Loving your enemies is a great slogan. But what does it look like with its boots on?

For a start, it looks like the righteous God of Justice submitting to unjust judges, and an innocent being punished for the sins of the guilty. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:8-10).

Not long ago in Fr David Moser’s parish in Boise reposed a 99-year-old concentration camp survivor named Luba Fomin. Luba said, “When someone throws a rock at you, throw back bread instead!” She died with no enemies, because she had learned to love them a long time before.

Saint Silouan, the patron of our parish, said:

Christ prayed for those that crucified Him: “Father, count not this sin against them; they know not what they do.” Archdeacon Stephen prayed for those who stoned him, so that the Lord would not judge this sin against them. And so we, if we wish to retain grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not find pity on a sinner who will suffer in flames in gehenna, then you do not carry the grace of the Holy Spirit, but rather an evil spirit. And while you are still alive, you must free yourself from his clutches through repentance.… I ask you to try something. If someone grieves you, or dishonors you, or takes something of yours, then pray like this: “Lord, we are your creations. Take pity on your servants, and turn us to repentance,” and then you will perceptibly bear grace in your soul. Induce your heart to love your enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, shall help you in all things, and will Himself show you experience. But whoever thinks evil of his enemies does not have love for God and has not known God. (from Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938 IX.21)

Love is not a feeling of affection. It was not for feelings that Christ ascended the cross – and remained there when he could have come down at any time. Love is not a feeling but a choice and a continuing action. We do not love our enemies by making excuses for them or playing make-believe that they’ve never hurt us — but by intentionally returning good for evil, and by prayers of intercession.

And more than this: by returning thanks to God for all things.

Saint John Chrysostom writes, “If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil, but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations.”

And St John lived what he preached. At the end of his ministry as Archbishop of Constantinople, he was falsely accused, defrocked, sent away to exile in Armenia. On the road he grew sick. And there, dying poor and friendless in a ditch by the side of the road in a strange country, his last words were: “Glory to God for all things.”

  • “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever… Give thanks to the Lord for his mercies, and for his wondrous works for the sons of men” (Ps 106 LXX)
  • “He hath done all things well” (Mk 7:37)
  • “Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19)

I try to pray passages like these at all times but especially when I am disappointed or cheated or disrespected. Because if my thankfulness and gratitude depend totally on my circumstances, then my faith is not in God at all, is it? I’m giving thanks for my will being done, and for everyone treating me well, and I haven’t really even begun to struggle against my pride, for the healing of my passions and the salvation of my soul. Gratitude is cheap until somebody hurts you.

So the Fathers, with one voice, teach us to consider offenses as a gift. Rejoice about them, and thank God for them.

When you can do this, then you’ll know from experience what Christ meant, “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” (Mt 5:11)

The Fathers advise us to consider the person who hurts us as a doctor who has providentially come to cure our souls of its diseases, particularly pride.

They emphasize the profit you can gain from what you’re made to suffer, if you don’t waste your suffering in complaint and self-pity and self-justification. St. Zosima said:

If someone remembers a brother who has hurt, injured or insulted him, he must regard him as a doctor and benefactor sent by Christ. If you get upset in these circumstances, it means your soul is sick. Indeed, if you were not sick, you would not suffer. So give thanks to this brother, for through him you know your illness. Pray for him and receive what comes from him as medicine sent to you by the Lord.

“Give thanks to this brother, for through him you know your illness.” People come to confession sometimes, heartbroken because they have just now become aware of a habit or attitude or some kind of sin they’ve always done – and only now they realize that all along they’ve been hurting people and dishonoring God. And I hasten to encourage them to give thanks: Because you can’t become aware of a darkness in your soul unless a light has shined on it. God revealed this sin to you now so that you can start cooperating in its healing. God showed it to you because he wants you to be made free from it. The injuries and insults of others – either enemies or (more often) family members acting thoughtlessly – are allowed by God in order to reveal the passions in our own souls that God is now ready to heal in us.

St. John of Gaza writes, “If we are righteous, then the trial sent us [by our enemies] is for our progress, and if we are unrighteous, then it is for the remission of sins and our improvement; it is also an exercise and a lesson in endurance.” (St John of Gaza, letters 383, 680)

We need to practice this as a discipline. St. John Climacus says “Love is first of all to reject every thought of enmity, because (1 Cor 13:5) love thinks no evil.”

As soon as we remember the wrong that was done to us, and our feelings rise up — even before our feelings rise up, when God gives us wisdom to see where our thoughts are headed: We must cut off the thought.

As soon as we catch ourselves fantasizing, wishing the other would crawl and sweat and KNOW HOW IT FEELS — we need to cut off that thought like a diseased limb. It’s said a fox will leave its leg in a steel jaw trap rather than wait to die as prey for the hunter. Cut off your rights, cut off your pride, cut off how it should have been, and live free here and now, in the real world where the God of all grace offers you healing and will never betray you.

Every time someone hurts you
Every time someone tries to get something out of you
Every time someone slanders or accuses you
Every time someone rejects you
Every time someone tries to tempt you
Is an opportunity to respond like Christ and to be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

According to the law of the Kingdom of God, nothing, not even the spiritual attacks we endure, is wasted.

“Therefore be merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”

“When someone throws a rock at you, throw back bread instead!”

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Notes that didn’t make it into the homily:

Saint John Chrysostom: From Homily 27 of his Homilies on Genesis 18-45
Consequently, I beseech you, let us keep this in mind and no longer bear to hold a grudge against those who have done us an injury or otherwise wronged us in some way, nor be badly disposed towards them; instead, let us consider of how much kindness and confidence for us with the Lord they prove to be instruments, and before all else the fact that reconciliation with those who injure us turns out to be a discharge of our sins. Thus let us show all enthusiasm and effort, and out of consideration of the gain accruing from this let us display as much care of those who injure us as if they were really our benefactors. In other words, if we look at things in the cold light of reason, those kindly disposed towards us and those anxious to serve our every need will not succeed in benefiting us as service of those others, which will render us deserving of favor from above and will lighten the load of our sins. Consider, dearly beloved, how important is this virtuous behavior to judge from the rewards promised by the God of all things to those who practice it. He said, remember, ‘Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Mt 5:44, Lk 6:27), since these directions were very demanding and aspiring to the very summit of perfection, he added, ‘so that you may be like your Father in heaven, because he makes his sun rise on good and evil, and sends rain on just and unjust’ (Mt 5:45). Do you see whom that person resembles—as far as is humanly possible—who not only takes no vengeance on those who harm him, but even shows zeal in praying for them? Accordingly, let us not deprive ourselves through indifference of such gifts and rewards surpassing all description, but rather evince enthusiasm for this kind of virtue by every means and, by disciplining our thinking, respond to God’s command.

St Paisios, in “Spiritual Councils” vol. III
In the spiritual life, things are in reverse: when you are left holding the short end of the stick, then you feel good; and when you give it to someone else, you feel badly. When you accept an injustice and are prepared to justify your neighbor, you accept Christ Himself into your heart, who was often wronged and maligned. It is then that Christ cannot be evicted from your heart and fills you with peace and gladness. Try it, my children, and experience this great joy! Learn to be happy with this spiritual joy, not with the worldly one, and every day it will the feast of Pascha!

The opposite of paranoia: We understand that everyone is out to bless and do us good. There is a vast worldwide conspiracy to save our souls and form in us the likeness of Christ.