Today we hear about a certain man, a lawyer who put Jesus to the test. It reminds me that quite often we are guilty of doing the same thing and trying to test God. We come up with various scenarios in our minds and theorize that this or that action or behavior is appropriate based on our own personalized reading of Scripture or using the idea that perhaps a certain activity or behavior is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But let me remind you that we are not Protestants with our own tailor-made unique reading of the Bible that applies only to me.
As Orthodox Christians we have God as our Father and the Church as our Mother, which means that we have the teachings of the Church and her saints to also help guide us. Trying to justify my sinful actions through smooth words and slippery philosophies is hardly attempting to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This is true whether it applies to casual sexual activity or illegal drugs or using foul language or any other thing that you can think of. The two can’t reside together. We can’t both test God and hope to be well pleasing to God. We shouldn’t try to be one person with dual aims and goals that are divergent. We should try to be a unified whole, everything moving together in the right direction.
On this point St. Nektarios of Aegina, whom we commemorated last Tuesday writes “Christians, have we understood the great responsibility that we have taken on before God through baptism? Have we come to know that we must conduct ourselves as children of God, that we must align our will with the will of God, that we must remain free from sin, that we must love God with all our hearts and always patiently await union with Him? Have we thought about the fact that our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor? Do we have the feeling that we must become holy and perfect, children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven? We must struggle for this, so that we may not be shown unworthy and rejected. Let none of us lose our boldness, nor neglect our duties, nor be afraid of the difficulties of spiritual struggle. For we have God as a helper, who strengthens us in the difficult path of virtue.”
As the lawyer attempts to put Jesus to the test, he himself is tested with severity. Jesus puts the man on notice with a very simple idea. You cannot possibly begin to understand loving God with all of your self and all of your strength until you actualize this love concretely towards your neighbor. The love you desire to have towards God is demonstrated by the actual love you show to the flesh and blood people around you, to those who are made in the image and likeness of God. Love is only a lofty theory if we continually speak about our love for God but we don’t lift a finger or break a sweat to serve and assist our neighbors.
St. Dorotheos of Gaza once said “The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.” So in fact we can look at our neighbor as a springboard or a trampoline or a rocket ship that propels us quickly towards the God we claim to desire with our heart. St. Dorotheos goes a bit further and he gives some practical advice on how we deal with others. You know that often people will say “I wish that I could be loving to such and such a person, but they are not loving to me. Yet here is what St. Dorotheos wrote “Do not ask for love from your neighbor, for if you ask and he does not respond, you will be troubled. Instead show your love for your neighbour and you will be at rest, and so will bring your neighbour to love.” It is the act of love that kindles love and not vice versa. This is also reflected in the teaching of our Lord who said “If you love me, obey my commandments.”
We also cannot underestimate the power of praying for others and forgiving others as true acts of love.
As we continue to think about new ways to love our neighbors and in turn draw closer to Christ, we are also reminded that the Nativity Fast begins tomorrow. St. John Chrysostom, whom we celebrated yesterday gives us some beautiful words regarding the true character of Christian fasting and I believe that it ties everything together nicely. He writes,
“For the value of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a (lovely) woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.” -St. John Chrysostom
Through these holy activities we will begin to show that we are children of the One who Himself took pity upon us and our broken condition and treated us as His neighbors and friends. To Christ alone be glory forever and ever AMEN.