Sometimes when you read the Scriptures for Sunday, there is a phrase that is used over and over. In Romans 12, St. Paul says “Be affectionate to each other” and also “let love be genuine between you.” In 2 Corinthians 6, he writes that he proves his ministry by, among other things, “love unfeigned.” You begin to catch a drift of meaning here. Though we may find it difficult to practice in the world, in the Church, love has to be the real thing. Orthodoxy has always been and will always be most fundamentally a matter of the heart. We can try to substitute religion or even piety for love, but it will never work. Don’t get me wrong, religion and piety play their part, but they must be expressions of love and not a substitute for love. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moons and Sabbaths and the calling of convocations wearies me.”
Well, for heaven’s sake, it seems like a direct put down of the Orthodox Faith. Why does God say this? Here is the answer: “…this people come near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men….”
This seems like a harsh word, and feels like a threat. Being a sinner, I know that most of the time my love for God and for my neighbor is anything but genuine. I do just enough and say just enough to get people to move on so that I can do the things I want to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t honestly feel love at times, but I know that love is demonstrated not by what I feel but by what I do.
The Gospel story found in Luke 7 drives the point home. Simon, I have something to say to you. From the moment I came into your house, you’ve done nothing for me. A host is supposed to see that his guests have their feet washed. You did nothing, but this woman has washed my feet continually. You gave me no kiss of greeting as hosts are supposed to do, but she has kissed my feet continually. You did not anoint my head with oil as hosts are suppose to do, but this woman did even more and anointed my feet with oil. I tell you Simon, her sins are forgiven.
In this story, we come to understand why it is important that love be genuine and unfeigned and demonstrated by what we do. It is a very great and important truth – more than anything else, forgiveness depends upon love, a love shown in action.
Jesus makes this connection. Forgiveness and love are bound together and cannot be separated. Her sins, which are many, are forgiven. Why? Because, she loved much. But why does she love so much? Because, she was forgiven much. It seems very circular, does it not? Jesus tells the parable again about the man who owed a lot of money, and a man who owed little. Both debts were forgiven, but which one loved the banker most? Obviously, it was the one who had the greatest debt.
So, I am driven to a conclusion about why my love is so shallow. I know the Church is trying to help me understand how great the debt that I owe is. If I can fully grasp this, my love will be great. Since my love is not so great, I really don’t have a clue as to how much has been forgiven me. Oh, I can grasp the concept in my mind, but my heart is another matter. So, it’s just easier to burn incense and attend services and flatter God with my lips as I chant about how much I love him. Will he believe it more if I chant it in Greek or in Slavonic? Maybe tone 6 would do better than tone 2?
I am a good Pharisee, you see. I do all things right. Jesus knocked on the door of my heart and I opened it and invited Him in. Yet, how sad it is that Jesus entered into my house, and I have done so little for Him. What a sorry host I am. If I really loved him, I would be kissing feet and anointing heads and my love for God and for my brothers and sisters would be genuine.
May I come to know how great was the debt forgiven, so that my love will be great, and may that love and affection be genuine and demonstrated by the feet I wash and the heads I anoint.