17th Sunday After Pentecost
Fr Andrew Gliga
A story from the desert fathers: "One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night-time. So, the brothers said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?’ The old man said to them, ‘If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk anymore; then we can stay here till the dawn.’ This he did. The others said, ‘We will not go on either, but we will stay with you.’ They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother."
One of the things we see from the desert fathers is that they exemplify the Gospel of Christ. They truly live out every commandment by Christ to the fullest. The Gospel of Christ isn't just a fancy philosophy, but actually something that should radically change our lives. The desert fathers and the saints of the church knew this and took it upon themselves to follow everything Christ had taught. So of course, the most important thing they had within themselves was love, which is the subject of today's Gospel reading.
The commandment is simple, we are called to love everyone, especially those who hate and wrong us "But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil". To love someone who has not wronged us, is actually a very easy thing to do, as the Gospel reading says: "For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same". We can change this into a modern rendition by saying: even the atheists love those who do good to them. Even atheists do good to those who do good. Instead, we are called to a more radical type of love, to love those who hate us. To love those who wrong us. To love those who make our lives miserable. This is the calling WE as Christians have.
In the eyes of the modern world, this seems entirely foolish. Imagine how different the story from the desert fathers would be if Abba John instead got upset at the brother who lost his way. What if Abba John said: "How dare you make a mistake like that and lose the way? You could have gotten us killed?" In fact, this response itself is one that seems entirely logically sound if we hear it with the eyes of the world! And yet, it totally misses the mark. Abba John showed what true love for his neighbor was: instead of putting down his fellow human being, he showed him love in order not to upset him.
This is where the difference we see in our Orthodox faith from the world around us. The modern notion is to love only those who do good to you. But those who give us hardships, we should not love them. In fact, this is exemplified in most TV shows, movies, and music. We rejoice when a villain is shown proper justice, or when a bad guy loses at the end of a movie. This is what he deserves because he is the bad guy. But when was the last time that you saw a movie where the bad guy was loved with true Christian love by the good guy? When was the last time you saw the good guy forgiving the bad guy and letting him live his life? In fact, in the modern mind, this would be viewed as a sign of weakness.
And yet, this is precisely what God did. When Jesus Christ was crucified, did he offer swift retribution to those who put him on the cross? Did he call down 9 legions of angels and crush the wicked offenders? Did he show his Godlike power and come down from the cross in order to teach the bad guys a lesson? No! He did nothing of the sort, because He showed what Godly love is: a self-sacrificial love. This Godly love is what we should strive above all else to attain.
Now that we know what we need to do, we should go out into the world and do so! Again, the Gospel is not a philosophy but something we are called to do. We are called to love those who wrong us! To love the coworker who slacks off at work. To love the driver who cuts us off and shows us obscene gestures. To love the person who yells at us and embarrasses us in front of other people. To love those who wish to do us evil. These are who are called to love! Just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us on the Cross, we too are called to love each other.
In closing, a quote from St. Theophan the recluse on love: "The fundamental, original commandment is: love! It is a small word, but it expresses an all-encompassing thing. It is easy to say: you must love, but it is not easy to attain love to the necessary degree. It is also not exactly clear how to attain it; this is why the Savior surrounds this commandment with other explanatory rules: love "as thyself"; and "as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise". Here is shown a degree of love that one can call boundless; for is there any limit to one’s love for oneself? And is there any good which one would not want for himself from others? Meanwhile, however, the instructions are not impossible to fulfill. The matter depends upon having perfect compassion toward others, to fully transfer their feelings to yourself, to feel the way they feel. When this occurs, there will be no need to point out what you must do for others in a given situation: your heart will show you. You must only take care to maintain compassion, otherwise egoism will immediately approach and return you to itself and confine you in itself. Then you will not lift a finger for another, and will not look at him, though he might be dying. When the Lord said: "love thy neighbor as thyself", He meant that our neighbor should be in us, that is, in our heart, instead of our own selves. If our “I” remains in there as before, we cannot expect anything good to come of it."