Sunday, March 3, 2019

Fasting & Forgiveness

Before we fast, we forgive. Today, we celebrate Forgiveness Sunday. Tomorrow, we begin to fast. Jesus first commands us to forgive one another (just after teaching us the Lord’s prayer) and then he teaches us how to fast (Matt 6:15-18).

This is the right order of events, because if we do not forgive one another, our fasting will be worthless. I repeat, if there is someone you will not forgive, you will not be forgiven. Now is the time for us to purge ourselves of all resentments and unforgiveness.

The Great Fast is a time of freedom from bondage. It is a time to let go of our enslaving passions – to forgive even those who don't deserve it – rather than carrying the weight of all that hatred or resentment toward them. Let’s just take that weight – that burden – and drop it – and let it go – and we’ll feel a thousand pounds lighter. Maybe fasting for 40 days will make me feel a thousand pounds lighter in body as well as soul.

The Great Fast should free us from our extra useless weight: the weight of our addiction to various sins, to overeating, to drinking too much, to being lazy about prayer, to all manner of sins of the flesh, but, above all, to being unloving and unforgiving to others – to our enemies, our family, and our friends.

Living in freedom from all of this, paradoxically gives the Fast an almost festive feeling. Jesus says today that, when we fast (not if we fast, but when we fast), we should anoint our head and wash our face. In the Byzantine tradition, we are anointed on our heads on feast days. It is a festive thing for us to do. Yet, last night we celebrated Litija at Vespers, which means we were all anointed.

And there's Litija again next Saturday evening. All this anointing during the Fast! Because there is a paradoxically festive element to this season. We call this in the Triodion bright fasting.

We will sing tonight at Vespers, “Let us begin the time of this bright Fast, giving ourselves over to spiritual struggle. …. Let us not only fast from food; let us also abstain from every passion and cultivate spiritual virtues. And let us faithfully persevere in this, so that we may be worthy to see the holy Passion of Christ our God and the joy of his holy Resurrection.”

We rejoice that we are being freed. And the path to that freedom in Christ is confessing our sins to one another and forgiving one another in his name. Forgive me, the sinner. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Least

on Matt 25:31-46

Each of us has someone that we love the least. Maybe this is an enemy who has done us harm. Someone who abused us in various ways or humiliated us. On the other hand, maybe it's just someone God has put into our lives that we simply ignore.

We may not even know who it is that we love the least. In fact, it's likely that we don't – because it's precisely someone that we're ignoring when we ought to be loving them.

Someone we ought to care for as a friend or a brother or a sister, but we neglect them because they distract us from our personal goals. Someone lying outside our gates like Lazarus, who we step over as we go about our daily life. We think we're minding our own business maybe – but, really, we're failing to recognize in this other person the image of God.

On the other hand, it might be your wife for your husband or your mother or your father or your son or your daughter or your brother or sister that you love the least. Whoever it is, we all have someone we love the least.

This is who Jesus means, I think, when he says, whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me (Matt 25:40). The least of Jesus's brethren are those of his children we love the least. And we are all God's children. Let us commit ourselves to welcoming and caring for all of God's children. This would a good plan for us, because it is on our caring for one another, above all, that we will be judged.

There will come an end of all things – the second coming of Jesus Christ – and the final judgment of each and every one of us, as we hear in today's holy gospel.

Russian c. 1660 in Yaroslavl

Let’s let fear of this judgement spur us to begin to love one another – especially those we love the least. When our love is perfected, it will cast out of us any need of fear (cf. 1 John 4:18). Until then, let us have a little fear.

Let us embrace whatever is necessary to motivate us to forgive those who have wronged us and try to do what good we can for them. Sometimes this means only that we pray for them and for all blessings upon them because we ourselves are powerless to intervene in any direct or material way. Many times, however, there is direct good that we can do – food, and clothing, and shelter that we can provide – and we neglect to do so at our peril.

Today, Jesus describes that peril as fire and punishment (Matt 25:41, 46). Elsewhere, he describes it as weeping and gnashing of teeth where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched and as the outer darkness.

We have many ways avoiding the fulfillment of God's command to give to him by giving to the least of his brethren – to those we love the least. Sometimes, we are cleverer than the rich man who stepped right over Lazarus in brazen indifference to that brightly shining image of God lying at his own doorstep. That is, sometimes we pack up and move.

Americans are especially good at this. Rather than loving the neighbors we find ourselves surrounded by and working to provide for them whatever they may need, we can just move to another city, another town, or another neighborhood where the neighbors leave us alone because they just want to be left alone too. Where we share an unspoken mutual agreement to ignore each other in exchange for not being bothered by the inconveniences of others' needs. Pretty as neighborhoods like this may be, they are in some cases a thin disguise, the façade of an edifice of hell, a whitewashed tomb, you might say. Such may be a neighborhood built out of the desire to escape people we find uncouth or undesirable – people elsewhere known as the least.

Wherever we find ourselves, however, it is not too late. God always puts people in our lives with needs so that we will have an opportunity to give. The needs and even the begging of others is not the nuisance to us it may seem to be, but a gift and an opportunity from our Lord himself to show our Lord himself that we welcome him and care for him and love him.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).

It takes only a fraction of a moment to repent, to begin to love, to work for and seek the good of the ones we love the least.

We know that our Lord is the Lover of mankind. We know that he is merciful and kind and that he forgives all who repent. Yet, woe to those of us who take this knowledge of his merciful loving kindness – his esed – and let it become an excuse for us to be unloving, thinking, “Oh, God will forgive me. I need not care for others.”

We must not forget that our God is awesome, mighty, and powerful beyond all measure. True paternal love, such as his, is not a spoiling and overindulgent love. God our father is not afraid to discipline us. In his love for us, he wants to make us into great men and women by his grace – by any means necessary. And greatness consists above all and becoming like God, who is love.  

Are you love? Am I love? If we are not yet love, we are not yet God. If we are not yet love, then let us have a little fear. If we do not love and also have no fear of God, we are damned. There is indeed something to fear. We damn ourselves by our failure to love and our failure to fear God.

Today's reminder of the coming Last Judgement exists to call us to repentance. Repent, forgive, and be forgiven. Today is Judgement Sunday. In one week is Forgiveness Sunday. God is both just and merciful – the end and the beginning.

We will be judged and we will be given every opportunity to repent. We are even now being given the opportunity to repent. Today. Let us not waste this one as we may have wasted many that have come before. There will be a final opportunity – we know not when – and it may be this.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.

“Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Among Christians on the internet, one very often sees various versions of the statement that being Christ-like includes the possibility of turning over tables and driving people out with a cord. This is usually meant humorously, but it is also often used subtextually to justify one's outbursts.

Image result for being Christ-like includes the possibility of turning over tables and driving people out with a cord

It would certainly seem to be true that there may be such a thing as divinely-inspired righteous anger. But let us tread with great caution and fear when approaching the claim that some outburst of ours qualifies.

Remember what James says: “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” Let us examine very carefully whether or not our wounded pride has anything to do with our anger. We will almost always find that it does. And that does not come from God. Better to be meek and humble of heart than to falsely place your angry outbursts in the camp of Jesus cleansing the Temple.

If we don't watch out, we will be calling our sins acts of God, which is nothing less than blasphemy.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

No one is good but God alone.

On Luke 18:18-27

When I was a small boy, our priest told us how, when he was a small boy, the people would go to church no matter what. It didn't matter if the snow was deep or the roads were slick, the people would brave the weather and go to church because nothing was more important than the church and being there to worship the Lord.

Trudging Through the Snow by Van Kuyck

This impressed me very much as a small boy. And so I was excited the next time there was a snow storm and I got the opportunity to test my mettle. The snow was deep and the wind was blowing yet still I trudged on to the church that Sunday morning against it all. We lived close enough to the church to walk in those days. It felt like an adventure. It was difficult but it was worth it – because it was for the Lord! However, when I got to the church, I saw that few had come. And I thought, Well! We can see who the good Catholics are!

But today Jesus tells the ruler that “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19), not even the Catholics who have braved the bad weather to get to church.

All the time, I hear people say, “I’m a good person. I’ll go to heaven because I’m a good person.” Really? A little humility would help us. If we think we’re already there, we’ve got a long way to go.

If you want to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to venerate the place where Jesus was born, they tell me you must enter through what they call the “Door of Humility.” It’s so low that you have to bow to enter. This is a good symbol of the fact that there is no access to the birth of Christ in our hearts without humility. Jesus himself is the model of humility - the very God entering into this world as a little baby.

And now here is Jesus who (I don’t care how good you may be, you’re not as good as he is, and) when somebody calls him, “Good teacher,” he retorts, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” In other words, if you’re calling him good, you’re calling him God. That’s the answer to his question, “Why do you call me good?” Because he is the Lord God – that’s why.

All this talk of goodness and who is good is important to the ruler’s question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Because there is only one way to life – to be united to the one who is good and is life.

But the ruler seems to think the way to life is by doing something. He asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This is also what people usually have in mind when they audaciously say, “I’m a good person.” What they mean is, “I haven’t killed anybody.”  

There are things we must do, of course, and Jesus lists them. We must keep the commandments. And, when we do not from time to time, let us repent in the holy mystery of repentance. Spending a lifetime away from confession is surefire way into hell, I can tell you, and a destroyer of humility.

But even before Jesus lists the commandments, he says that “no one is good but God alone.” This reveals to us that perhaps goodness may be less about doing and more about being.
The Lord is good. Goodness is his name.  As the psalm says, "Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good, sing praises to his name for it is beautiful.” (Psalm 134.3).

God is not good simply because he chooses or wills to align himself with some abstract standards or principles of goodness or morality. God is goodness himself and the source of all goodness. He is good himself just as he is love himself. He is good in his being, his essence, his nature. Good is a name for who he is.

As with all the names of God, this name is only an analogy. The essence of God is beyond us, beyond being, beyond all names, and beyond knowing. If someone claims to fully understand the mystery of God in himself, be assured that they are insane.

Yet, paradoxically, we can know God somehow, can't we? We do have these names for God, given to us by God himself – good and light and beautiful and love and ecstasy and zeal (The Divine Names, Pseudo-Dionysius). Jesus himself calls God good as did the inspired psalmist before him.

We know that God is good by our own experience of goodness.

The ruler in today's gospel lacks perfection, but even he is able to see that Jesus is good and can teach him the way to life. However, he needs Jesus to teach him that God is the only good one and the source of all goodness.

Perfect goodness cannot be attained by simply following the rules – though following God’s commandments by the grace of God is essential. Rather we are good to the extent that we participate in the goodness of God and we live to the extent that we live the life of God.
All the things that God has created are good. God, who is good, is the ground of all being – so everyone who is and has being partakes of his goodness. 

One of my professors, Father Jonathan Tobias, writes, "We know God's goodness because goodness, too, is part of our created nature. We are 'analogous' to God: He is infinitely beyond us, and He is Creator while we are creature. But still, his design for goodness in us resonates with his transcendent goodness."

What good can we do in response to this goodness of God? How can we not do as the psalm says and "sing praises to his name?" That is why we gather here to celebrate liturgy together day after day and week after week – not just to puff ourselves up or to keep out of hell – but to sing praises to his name.

When asked what we are supposed to get out of liturgy, Father Robert Taft, of blessed memory, replied, "What you get out of the liturgy is the privilege of glorifying almighty God. If you think it's about you, stay at home. It's not about you. It is for you, but it's not about you.... John says quite clearly that Jesus is the important one: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’ He must increase, I must decrease. Everybody needs to hear that. It's not about me, it's not about you. It's about something infinitely more important than us."

My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, we are not God. You are not God and I am not God. Jesus says that God alone is good. Let us stop, then, acting like we can make ourselves good by our own power. Give up! Surrender! Let us turn to God instead, who alone can make us good.

We can do nothing apart from the grace of God. Jesus shows the ruler that the beginning of the way to eternal life is to keep the commandments. But even this we cannot do apart from the grace of God.

The ruler had kept these commandments – Jesus does not deny it. So God must have been with him all along. Let me tell you, God is with us all. To the extent that we exist at all, and certainly to the extent that we are good, God is in us. We are all at all times and in all places in God's hands.

Left in our hands, our salvation would be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Luke 18:27; Matt 19:26). Of myself, I cannot do anything. God can do anything. Through God, with God, and in God, I can do anything (cf. Phil 4:13). Apart from God, without God, outside of God, I can do nothing.

We are weak, but he is strong.
We are powerless. Only God is powerful.
We are overrun with many inadequacies, weaknesses, addictions, resentments, and sins. Things and people lord over us, replace God in our hearts, become idols. These things – whatever they are for us personally – can become obstacles between us and the only good one. They can disrupt our prayer of praise to the source of all goodness.

We ought to bask always in the light of his goodness, the way that a sunflower follows the sun.

One of the images of the Good that my favorite theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius, offers us is the sun. He writes, "The great, shining, ever-lighting sun is the apparent image of the divine goodness, a distant echo of the Good. It illuminates whatever is capable of receiving its light and yet it never loses the utter fullness of its light."

If we would strive for the perfection he calls us to – asking the Lord, "what do we still lack?" – we must remove every obstacle that exists between us and God – even if they are good things – like the riches of the ruler. If we have many riches burdening our hearts, let us give them away. If we're over-focused on other good things or people, let us renew our focus on the Lord.

More than by our own moral striving, we will grow in likeness to the Lord by basking in the light of his glory and praising his name without ceasing. All goodness comes from him. He is the only one who is good. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Withdraw for a time.

Christ is baptized!

And immediately after his baptism, he was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. This is the gospel we heard yesterday for the Saturday after Theophany (Matt 4:1-11). The 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism foreshadows for us the coming 40-day Great Fast before Pascha. The Great Fast before Pascha is also the Great Fast after Theophany. When Pascha is very early, the Triodion starts almost immediately. This year, however, we have endless days of feasting – well, until the end of February.

Jesus endures his fast in the desert in preparation for his ministry. Though he is perfect and unchangeable in his divinity (and so you might think he doesn’t need any preparation), in his perfect humanity, he does change and need preparation.  He grows in wisdom and in stature, as Luke tells us (2:52). In the desert, Jesus experiences hunger, which is a very human thing to experience. He fasts and then he is hungry (Matt 4:2). And he is tempted by the devil to eat bread.

Fasting weakens us. At first, it makes us more susceptible to temptations, not less. Anyone who has made a strenuous effort at the Great Fast knows it has a tendency to produce irritability, short tempers, and the easy formation of resentments. This is why some of the fathers point out to us that it does no good to fast from meat if we were only going to turn around and bite the backs of our brothers and sisters.

Fasting also weakens Jesus. Here is God in the wilderness weakened in his humanity and hungry.
But we submit to this time of weakening as a necessary training. It's a bit like when an athlete undergoes a strenuous workout. You know that when you lift a lot of heavy weights it actually, in the short-term, weakens you. That same day, you're wiped out. The very fibers of your muscles are torn apart by the effort. However, they respond to this by healing over time and coming back with greater strength so that, next time, they can lift that weight more easily.

The same is true of the spiritual effort of fasting and other ascetic labors. They train us in self-denial. Then when we're tempted to do things that really are evil, unlike eating food, which is not evil, we have the strength to resist – like Jesus resisted his temptations in the desert – because we’ve practiced not giving into our desires. Habit is a powerful thing. And we're going to need good habits and great strength because greater temptations are coming to us then we have so far experienced.

The same thing is true in the human life of Jesus Christ. He comes out of the desert, which he entered to be tempted and strengthened in his humanity, only to walk straight into horrible adversity. Today, we hear in the holy gospel that, immediately after he rebukes the devil in the desert, he hears that John has been arrested (Matt 4:12). John, his Forerunner and his Baptist, the servant to whom he had bowed his head and from whom he had received baptism only 40 days or so before.

This arrest bodes poorly for Jesus, you understand. He and John were publically affiliated with each other. The authorities that had arrested John would likely be coming for Jesus next. This is one of those adversities for which Jesus trained in the desert. This is a moment of spiritual discernment by our Lord. He has a decision to make, and in making it he must not be rattled by difficult circumstances.

He could rail against those authorities that have arrested John and heroically be arrested with him. He could witness to the gospel by bravely facing the false accusers right away. But Jesus is able to respond to the adversity dispassionately and with wisdom. He knows that first the gospel must be preached to the people before he is given up, or rather freely lays down his life for us.

First, he must preach. For our faith, as Paul will teach us, comes by hearing – and hearing the preaching of Christ (Rome 10:17). If the word was not preached, it would not be heard, and we would have no faith. So, Jesus does not stand at this time and rail against the wicked persecutors of John. Rather, at this time, he withdraws into Galilee and leaves Nazareth and goes and dwells in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

By this example he teaches us, St John Chrysostom says, that “it is not blameworthy not to throw oneself into peril.” This was shown to us also when Jesus was a baby. When Herod ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in his effort to destroy the Christ Child, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream and the Holy Family flees into Egypt (Matt 2:13).

Knowing of coming peril and destruction, it is at times good for us to withdraw for a time. This is not to say that we are to be cowards. Far from it. Jesus embraces the cross and commands us to do the same. We must be courageous, but we need not be foolish. (Though perhaps some of us are to other kinds of foolishness – to the ascesis of folly – to be fools for Christ’s sake). But Jesus is no fool. He reserves his passion for a better time. It is necessary, as I say, for him to preach the gospel first.

It is interesting to note, as Matthew does, where this adversity sends him and where he consequently first preaches the gospel. To the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. It will help to know something about this place. Where are Zebulun and Naphtali? Or, maybe, who are Zebulun and Naphtali? Well, first of all, they were two sons of Jacob, according to the Book of Genesis. They are two fathers of two of the 12 tribes of Israel. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in the North. It was here that the Jews experienced their first captivity by the Assyrians. It was here that they first forgot the Torah and descended into idolatry.

When Isaiah describes them as a people who sat in darkness, it helps to have some understanding of what he's talking about (Isaiah 9:2). These are the people who have forgotten the Lord – and it is to them that the Lord comes. For those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned (Matt 4:16). That light is Jesus Christ and his preaching of the gospel.

Isn’t this remarkable? Those who first forgot the Lord and abandoned his law and turned to other gods – it is to them that he first of all comes! It is among them that he first preaches! We are never abandoned by the Lord, even if we have abandoned him. Very much to the contrary, he comes to seek out and save those who are lost, confused, mired in sin, and idolatrous. Us, in other words. The beautiful shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep on the mountain to go and find the one who has gone astray (Matt 18:12).

And listen to the first word he preaches to them and to us, the first word he preaches ever to anybody: “Repent…, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Origins of the Unoriginate God

The gospels provide two genealogies of Our Lord Jesus Christ. There is the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, which we read today – the Sunday before Christmas – The Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ. And there is the genealogy in Luke.
When these readings come up in our lectionary, it can be tempting to zone out and wait for it to be over – rather than to reflect upon their meaning. These long lists of names – which many of us do not recognize – do little to hold our attention or inspire spiritual reflection upon their meaning. Why do we bother with these boring lists of names? What do they have to do with us? There is, however, much to learn about our God and our salvation from these genealogies.
It is possible to go through these names and discover some interesting characters, who show us the absolute humanness of our Lord Jesus Christ and his origins. He is our God, as we know, but “he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2). He did not choose exclusively exemplary and holy people through whom to come into the world. He chose sinful people - imperfect people. In fact, looking through his genealogy is rather like looking through mine. It’s not always pretty.
 There are among the ancestors of Jesus: adulterers, murderers, and prostitutes. Even out of evils such as these, God brings good – and not only good, but the greatest good – our Lord himself. Our savior, Jesus Christ.
Some of these characters are scandalous, but woe to us if we are scandalized. Woe to us if we turn away from this son of a carpenter – our own genealogies will then rise up and condemn us. Let none pretend that the ancestors who brought them into being are free from sin and error.
We may have family secrets – skeletons in our closets – parents or grandparents of whom we are ashamed. But Jesus has no family secrets – all the skeletons in God’s closet are on full display in the pages of the Old Testament. Jesus becomes a man through such people so that people such as us need not despair nor be ashamed.  Jesus is not ashamed of us no matter who our parents or ancestors are. He is one of us. He is not just anyone, but a particular man, with all that that entails.
In some ways more scandalous than the sins and foibles of some of Jesus’ ancestors is what is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.”  
How is it that our Lord and God, who is “ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, ever-existing yet ever the same” – as we say in the Anaphora of our Divine Liturgy – would change and become a man – and not only Man in the abstract sense of our human nature, but also a man in the particular sense necessary to that human nature? That is, He became a particular man at a particular time in history in a particular place of a particular race and people.
Jesus, we believe, comes to save the people of every era. Why then was he born more than two thousand years ago? If he is my savior, why does he not belong to my generation? Further, if he is the savior of Adam and Eve, why did he wait so long to come into the world?
Jesus comes to save the people of every race. Not only the Jews, but also the Africans, the Asians, the Americans, the Europeans, and every race. Why then does he come into the world as Jew? I am not a Jew, and yet my salvation comes from a Jew.
Jesus comes to save both men and women. Why then does he come as a man?  
Jesus comes to save people of every age – from the unborn to the elderly. Why then does he die so young? I am five years older than Jesus when he died. Yet he died for me too, even though I have not followed him in this.
These are some of his particularities. And they have everything to do with his ancestors. Because Jesus’ salvific mission to the world is universal – he came to save us all – it can be tempting to try to universalize him – to abstract him – to generalize him. But to do this is to strip him of his real humanity. It is part of being human to have a particular set of characteristics consequent to a particular ancestry.
He is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and – so it was supposed – the son of Joseph, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
By the way, these genealogies are in fact both not of Mary but of Joseph. So, they give us not his genealogy according to the flesh but the genealogy of his foster father – a genealogy that places him in a family created not by blood but by marriage. This tells us something of how sacred is marriage. 
Tradition, however, tells us that Mary is also a descendant of David.
All this specificity about his incarnation – that our Lord became a man – is scandalizing to those – such as Muslims and Jews – who do not accept the paradox of our incarnate God. It is a “scandal” to those who have not accepted the revelation of it, because reason alone – just thinking about it – will never get you there. Reason alone will never reveal to you that this poor son of a carpenter from Nazareth – there and nowhere else – is the very God – the Lord Almighty, the Creator of all things. It will never reveal to you that this descendant of Abraham was before Abraham ever was – that this son of Adam is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The only way we can realize our salvation in Jesus Christ – in Jesus of Nazareth – is by this revelation, which is a scandal to unaided reason.
The genealogies wonderfully place our Lord in a particular time and place and of a particular people. God does not have a genealogy – but God become Man must and does have a genealogy and to us who believe, this particularity is the very means of our salvation.
God entered into human history. This genealogy in a sense describes for us the origins of the unoriginate God, which is rather like many of the paradoxes we sing in the Akathist hymn – such as that Mary is the space of the spaceless God. Our reason cannot fathom this paradox, but our faith knows it to be the source of our salvation. God has become Man – with all the particularity that entails – in order that you and I, with all of our particularities, can become one with God.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Needle is a Needle and a Camel is a Camel.

on Luke 18:18-27

I saw a comic strip recently. There's a preacher character standing in the pulpit before his congregation, rather like I am now standing before you, and he says, quoting Jesus, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – which is from the gospel we've just heard (Luke 18:25). And everyone in the congregation is looking aghast and worried. But then the preacher goes on to say, “And now I will tell you why that's not what he really meant.” And everyone in the congregation breathes a sigh of relief.

There's nothing new about this attempted dodge. Preachers have been trying to explain away this admittedly poetic image of Jesus since the early Church.

St. Cyril of Alexandria softens the blow a little bit by claiming that “by a ‘camel,’ [Jesus] doesn’t mean the animal of that name but rather a thick cable…. It is the custom,” claims St. Cyril, “of those well-versed in navigation to call the thicker cables ‘camels.’”[i] Okay, sure.

In modern times, it’s not uncommon to hear the claim that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow gate into Jerusalem.

So, we’ve got some claiming that “camels” are thick cables and not animals and others claiming that the “eye of the needle” is a narrow gate and not the tiny hole on one end of a pin. It is difficult – but not impossible – to get a thick cable through the eye of a needle. And it is difficult – but not impossible – to get a camel through a narrow doorway. If we decide to agree with both of them, then getting the rich into heaven is no more difficult than passing a cable through a doorway! That’s downright easy!

Everybody’s trying to soften Jesus’ imagery here. Maybe we need not part with our riches after all – is the subtext.

from phatcatholic

But then there is, for example, St. John of Damascus, who writes,
“‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God!’ When all the saints heard this command, they thought they should withdraw from this hardness of riches. They parted with all their goods. By this distribution of their riches to the poor, they laid up for themselves eternal riches. They took up the cross and followed Christ. Some followed [and were] made perfect by martyrdom…, while others by the practice of self-denial did not fall short of them…. Know that this is a command of Christ our King and God that leads us from corruptible things and makes us partakers of everlasting things.”[ii]

I think St. John of Damascus is closer to the mark on this one. While it is true that at times Jesus was given to the use of hyperbole – extreme exaggeration – to make his point. For example, elsewhere he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Now, we know that Jesus teaches us to love one another, even as he has loved us (John 13:34), and he’s not contradicting that here. He’s using hyperbole to demonstrate how great must be the devotion we have to him as compared what we have to others. But, I don't think that's what's going on with the camel and the eye of the needle. I believe that what Jesus is saying here is literally true even if poetically expressed. Which is to say, the salvation of the rich is literally impossible for them. Harsh words. Bear with me.

These sorts of warnings against wealth were nothing new, by the way, biblically speaking. There is the proverb, “He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf” (11:28). And our holy mother, Mary, the Theotokos, proclaims while pregnant with God, that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1:53).

It’s not that wealth is not a gift from the Lord. It is. But it is given to be used for his purposes. We like to pretend that our possessions are all our own accomplishment - as if we didn’t get every strength, talent, and opportunity we have from the Lord. We must learn gratitude and learn to recognize that every dollar we have is really the Lord’s. We are the stewards only and not the owners of our wealth. It is God’s wealth and meant to be used for his purposes, especially in this season of almsgiving. Let those who have give to those who have not. “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich,” says St. John Chrysostom. That is, the rich will be saved if they give to the poor. That is what their wealth is for.

Let’s not try to explain away Jesus’ admonition, but let’s take it to heart. When Jesus’ disciples hear what he has to say about the camel and the eye of a needle, they have the right instincts, which is not to question whether the Lord really means what he's saying but rather to see the full of implication and ask, “Who then can be saved?” When we hear Jesus say this hard word, we always want to say, “Oh sure the rich can to enter the Kingdom. You don’t really mean that, Jesus.” But his disciples at the time, rightly, took it the other way – “Then no one can be saved. What you’re saying, Jesus, is that this is impossible.” Yes, that’s right.

Notice that Jesus does not answer by saying, the poor only can be saved. Rather, he extends the dread impossibility of our salvation over all humanity saying, “For men it is impossible.” Not only for the rich is it impossible, but for all men and women it is impossible. See how he plainly says this now. A camel going through the eye of a sewing needle is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – absurdly impossible. Period. And “impossible” is Jesus' own word to describe the situation. He means it. It is impossible. We cannot save ourselves. It’s as simple as that. It’s every bit as difficult as living forever.

“But for God all things are possible.” God alone could pass a camel through the eye of a needle. God alone can raise the dead. He can and he will. Because he loves us. Jesus, and not ourselves, is our savior. The archangel Gabriel says to Mary, “you shall call his name Jesus [which means ‘savior’], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

[i] Commentary on Luke, homily 123
[ii] Barlaam and Joseph 15.128-29

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