We return to our discussion of passages from Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew (Holy Cross Orthodox Press), a collection of selections from the homilies of St. John Chyrsostom translated and edited by Robert Charles Hill.
Today we will look at six passages.
The lesson of Sodom, Mt 11:24
“I mean, when Paul is read out and you take no notice, when John is proclaimed and you do not listen, at what point will you receive a needy person when you do not receive an apostle? In order, therefore, for our houses to be continually open to the former and our ears to the latter, let us clear out the filth and mud in the ears and the body, so lascivious songs, worldly gossip, talk of debts and loans and mortgages block the hearing of the mind to a worse degree than any dirt—or, rather, they not only block it but also make it impure.”
On one level, this is a passage that concerns action and contemplation. If you are a person of action and you believe you can serve the Lord without also being a person of contemplation your action is worthless, your motivation for serving others suspect.
All true service for the Lord emerges from contemplation, from prayer. You cannot know the will of God without prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading. You cannot serve others for the Lord if you do not have a life that balances action and contemplation.
To think that you can serve others, as some do, without being a person of prayer leads to the sins of greed, vainglory, and pride.
You may in fact, as some do, act out of a belief that you are doing good, when you are actually doing evil.
At the core of this passage is the message that we gain nothing from Scripture if we do not read it and meditate on it and listen attentively when we hear it during liturgy.
Even if we do read and meditate on Scripture and listen attentively, if we are filled with the filth and mud of the world it will be difficult and in some cases impossible to receive Our Lord’s teachings.
We are influenced by the mud and filth of the world in a variety of ways, among them popular music, gossip, and the distraction of money, bills, and other worldly concerns that can fill us with anxiety.
St. John’s message reminds us that Christians must renounce the world. At times this means a complete rejection of worldly things, at others it means a limiting of our exposure to them.
To hear the Lord, and to follow his teachings, we must become purified of the mud and filth of this world.
Renunciation of worldly ways makes this possible.
To stop the flow of mud and filth of the world that damages our souls, we might avoid certain persons, places, things, and events.
We might stop watching television and movies, or at least be highly selective in what we watch.
We might stop listening to popular music that promotes values counter to our faith, particularly the music of performers who take positions and support values that undermine Christianity or are anti-Christian.
We might stop watching and supporting college and professional sports teams and events such as the Super Bowl, March Madness, and the Olympics.
We might limit our use of the internet and be more discerning when it comes to the books we choose to read.
Try abstaining from watching television shows and movies and spending time on the internet during a fasting period and you most likely will find that you have missed nothing. Your ascetical practice for a fasting period may lead to a permanent practice, one that will help you grow closer to Our Lord.
Be more attentive to how much time you spend worrying about your finances. Think of the birds.
Be a good steward of your finances but be sure you place your trust in God.
I know this is demanding and difficult, but the more you renounce the world the more you will open your soul to Christ. Only if you truly open your soul to Christ will you be able to serve others.
The Ninevites, Mt 12
“I say this to myself, I give this advice firstly to myself; let no one take offense as though condemned. Let us set out on the straight and narrow. How long laziness? Are we not fed up with being slothful, fun-loving, dilatory? Will it not be more of the same—feasting to excess, lavish expenditure, money, possessions, buildings? And what comes at the end? Death. And what kind of end? Ashes and dust, coffins and worms. So let us give evidence of a new kind of life; let us turn earth into heaven.”
St. John recognizes that he, like everyone else, finds it difficult to renounce the ways of the world.
When it comes to faith, most of us tend to be lazy.
We want to follow Christ, but we do not want to limit what we eat and drink, how much we spend, how much time we give to television and popular music, how much we own, how much we worry about what we own.
We do not want to give up things we believe pleasurable, even if they damage our souls (and our bodies). We do not want to live by the commandments.
Death awaits each of us. When we die, we do not take the things of world we have accumulated into the next. You could be buried like a pharaoh with your favorite things, but they will be of no use to you. They will be corrupted by moth and rust or perhaps looted by thieves. We do, however, take with us the darkness we have gathered, which corrupts our souls and makes us impure. For this, we will be judged.
If we have been made new by Christ in this life, we will reveal this through how we live. The evidence that we are moving toward heaven in this life is revealed by how we live.
Hidden treasure and the pearl, Mt 13-44-45
“We can learn not only this, that we ought to strip ourselves of everything else and cling to the message, but also that we should do it with joy; the person giving up possessions should be aware that the process means gain, not loss. Do you see how the message lies hidden in the world, and good things hidden in the message? … So two things are required: refraining from earthly things and staying on the alert.”
We may receive temporary satisfaction from worldly things, but our temporary joy is sure to turn into sorrow.
The more we have, the less dissatisfied we become, because what we have is never enough; we always want more. This endless seeking of more keeps us in a state of anxiety. This is a particular problem in our society today, but it was a problem as well in St. John’s times. It’s interesting how often the Fathers speak in their times directly about problems that are with us today.
Joy in this world comes from following Christ. The grief and sorrow in this life cannot take away the joy of the Christian whose primary focus is on Christ.
Cleanse your soul, Mt 15:16-20
“Weep and groan, give alms, make it up to the person you’ve insulted, be reconciled in this way, wipe your tongue clean so as not to provoke God further.”
Have you ever wept and groaned in agony thinking about the suffering you have caused Our Lord, the suffering you have caused others in this life?
Have you ever wept when thinking of the sins you have committed?
Have you ever prayed with David:
“I am worn out with my groaning.
Each night I bathe my bed
and sprinkle my couch with my tears.”
(Psalm 6, The Holy Psalter: The Psalms from the Septuagint, trans. Fr. Lazarus Moore)
A number of the Fathers teach us that without weeping and groaning there is no repentance.
Even if you have confessed your sins and know that you are forgiven through the mercy of God, to be repentant means that you will have wept and groaned over the sins you have committed, even after you have confessed them, the way Peter wept and perhaps groaned as well after he realized that he had fulfilled the prophecy and betrayed Our Lord, the way Paul contended with the thorn that troubled him throughout his life as a Christian.
Filled with sorrow for our sins, we weep and groan. Yet our sorrow becomes joy because we are are reconciled to Our Lord and follow him.
Filled with joy, we freely give alms. We give not for the approval of others or because we falsely believe we can save ourselves but because we love Christ, who has opened the gates of Heaven to us.
We sin with our tongues more often than we realize.
Reconciling with those we have insulted with our tongues will fill us with joy. We are filled with joy when we reconcile with those we have insulted because we have been restored to Christ.
Peter and the Cross, Mt 16-23
“When you make that sign, fill your forehead with complete confidence, make your soul free. You should, in fact, make its mark not idly with your fingers, but first deliberately in deep faith.”
Never be too fearful or too proud to mark yourself with the sign of the cross, a sign of belief and a prayer.
Each time we make the sign of the cross we express our faith and say a short prayer.
In making the sign of the cross we dedicate the activity we are about to do to the Holy Trinity.
Every time you make the sign of the cross know why you are making it and make it deliberately.
Know, too, that the sign of the cross is a sign of freedom.
Your soul, Mt 16-26
“Do not neglect the welfare of yourself while attending to others, as everyone does, thus resembling miners: they gain no benefit for themselves from their work or from the rich produce; rather, it means a great loss to them because they go to risk to no purpose, incurring the risk for other people while reaping no benefits from their own labors and death.”
If you serve others without spending time in prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading you neglect God and yourself, and you gain nothing from your service. The work that gives you joy is infertile, your joy false, your service a loss.
Prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading train us to know when our almsgiving and serving others is the result of our love of God and not of ourselves without God.
Those who neglect themselves while attending to others fall to pride, the devil’s sin. They believe that they live, but they are dead spiritually.
If you neglect your welfare in this way, you will lose your soul. So make sure you do not neglect your own welfare in attending to others. Attend first to Christ and your love of Christ will give meaning to your serving others.
[Notes from our July 21, 2018, talk]