Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sabbath is a Day of Freedom.

On a Sabbath day, Jesus sets free a woman who was crippled for eighteen years by Satan (Luke 13:10-11, 16). On a Sabbath day, Jesus says to her, "Woman, you are loosed" (Luke 13:12). You are free. You are enslaved to your infirmity no longer. Jesus unties the knots in her back so she again can stand up straight in his presence. He sets her free from bondage. And He sets us free from bondage.

This is what Jesus does. He sets his people free (John 8:36). The truth will set you free and Jesus is the truth – the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the word incarnate, truth himself. And the truth is, it is Jesus that sets us free. It is sin and death, passions and suffering, addictions and illnesses, powers and principalities that enslave us. It is Jesus that sets us free.  

He does not come into the world to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17). As we prepare for his coming into the world at Christmas, remember what Gabriel says to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” for he will save his people from their sins (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21). The name Jesus means “the Lord saves” and it’s related to the Hebrew for “deliverance.”  

But some mischaracterize Jesus as the one who binds us – as an enslaver rather than a liberator. They say this because Christians try to follow moral laws and keep the commandments of him whom we love. And they say this because they do not know what freedom is.

Some think of freedom as the license to do what they want. They regard the very idea of sin as judgmentalism. But the truth is that we who are sinners are enslaved to sin. We quickly discover this when we try and fail by our own power to live sinlessly. It is possible only by the grace of God to live sinlessly. Of course, if we don't try at all, we might think we're free because we're doing just as we like. But we're really only free if we can make the choice to sin no more. And that is only possible in Jesus Christ.

This fasting that we’re doing until Christmas is meant to help free us from our enslavement to sin. Fasting is a good measure of our freedom from our enslaving passions. Firstly, it reveals to us how impassioned we really are. Once we start to practice self-control we quickly learn how out of control we are – how badly we need to rely on the Lord for strength. Do not fast without prayer. Whatever it is we have freely chosen to fast from will doubtlessly allure us at some point during our fast, unless we are fasting from something we don’t want anyway, (in which case, we should add to our fast something we do want, because fasting should train us to resist temptation).  “By training the Christian to abstain from sin, [fasting] leads to interior freedom and true joy.”[i] But how quickly and easily we often find ways to justify breaking our fast. How clear it is at times that we are enslaved to our desires. We seek freedom from this enslavement and we find it only in Christ.

There are different kinds of freedom. For example, there is bodily freedom and there is spiritual freedom. And there are two figures in today's gospel who illustrate these two kinds of freedom: the bent over woman and the ruler of the synagogue.

Behold the woman (Luke 13:11). She is enslaved in body until Christ frees her. But even though a spirit of infirmity afflicts her body, it does not afflict her spirit. Behold how she freely attends synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-11). How faithful she is, despite having suffered for so long – for eighteen long years. This has not crushed her spirit. Her body is bowed down, but even so she can bow down to the Lord. How frustrating she must be to Satan. He crushes the bones of her back thinking he can thereby crush her spirit. But no. She has a freedom he cannot touch, even as he afflicts her body. And her freedom to be faithful to God, to go anyway to synagogue, despite the pain it obviously causes her, results in her being in the presence of Jesus, which results in her healing, and her freedom even in body. Jesus takes away even the little power that Satan had over her. He frees her totally. He restores totally her true and free nature.

Because really we are made for freedom in both body and spirit. Our nature as God creates it is like God. He made us like himself: free and holy and immortal – unique, relational, and free, as Fr. Sid Sidor liked to point out – but by our sins we have clouded this likeness. When we sin, we surrender our freedom.

And what likeness to God we have lost through sin, suffering, and death, Christ comes to restore through his incarnation.  Just as Jesus restores the bent over woman to her true nature, so he is restoring us.

In the meantime, the bent over woman in the synagogue teaches us that suffering does not actually keep us from the freedom to which God calls us.

But then there is the ruler of the synagogue. He is free in body, free to speak to all those gathered there, and in a position to remonstrate with them loftily. But he is enslaved in spirit. His bondage is worse than hers. The crippling of her body did not shackle her mind or heart, but he, whose body is well, is unlovingly indignant about the Lord’s deliverance of the woman (Luke 13:14).[ii]  His passionate regard for the letter of the law only distracts him from the true spirit of the law, as he criticizes the people there for seeking healings on the Sabbath. He has forgotten what the Sabbath really is and what it is for. He has made it more like a rope around the neck than a hand untying that rope. The Sabbath rest is not meant to burden God’s people. The Sabbath is a day of freedom – freedom from the drudgery and toil to which we’ve been enslaved by sin since Adam. It was made to be a day of rest – “that is, a time of liberation.”[iii] Rest from extortion and from enslaving others. As Ambrose says, “The Sabbath is… a day of rest from evil deeds.”[iv] It’s not a day of rest from mercy or from love. Nor are we to rest from giving drink to the thirsty or from delivering the afflicted children of God. More than once, Jesus heals on the Sabbath for this reason. That is what the Sabbath is all about.

Remember the Jubilee year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the year after seven sets of seven years when all debts were forgiven and all slaves were freed (Leviticus 25). This is what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. He is freeing slaves. Those enslaved to illnesses and infirmities of body he heals. Those enslaved to demons he delivers. He is our healer, our deliverer, our liberator.

And he is come to free us today – here and now. True freedom is really available to us in the present moment – in the here and the now. Though we often think it is only possible in the future, or even in the hereafter, we have it all wrong. The bent over woman was already free in the most important way, even though she and we have to wait for the coming of the Lord for our total liberation, there was a consoling measure of freedom available to her even in the midst of her enslavement – a freedom of mind and heart, that all of us can share.

The Lord grants access to this freedom if we will open ourselves to his presence in our lives as through repentance, prayer, fasting, and giving to all.

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

[i] Christ, Our Pascha: Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Kyiv: Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, 2016), 220.
[ii] Commentary by Warren Wiersbe
[iii] Sacra Pagina
[iv] Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.174-75

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Love the Stranger as Yourself

The Hospitality of Abraham,
Constantinople, late 14th century

A lawyer – that is, a scholar of Torah – asks Jesus what he has to do to live forever (Luke 10:25). Life forever is what Jesus offers, so how do we get it? It's a fair question. Well Jesus says to the man, you already know. Really he says, “What does it say in the law?” (Luke 10:26). You already know Torah and the Torah comes from the Father. The law is to be believed. The answer is already there. And, indeed, the lawyer does know. And he quotes to Jesus the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18).

I love this. In another place, another lawyer – to test Jesus – asks him, “What is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus gives him the answer (Matt 22:35-40). He was asking Jesus to test him – to see if he knew his Torah – to see if he was really up to snuff. Because if he was who he said he was, then this is something he should know. This is something that the Pharisees and scholars of the law knew, which is made clear today when the roles are reversed and it is Jesus asking the question and the lawyer answering. Of course, Jesus does know what the Pharisees and lawyers already know. But he also knows more than they do.

Then, desiring to justify himself, the lawyer says to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). This is something that Jesus knows but the lawyer doesn’t – and it’s something we also forget. He knows who our neighbors are. And he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the point – that our neighbors are not to only those of our own people, or our own country, or political party, or our own religion – that our neighbors include foreigners and heretics and heterodox and our enemies and – to me this is in a way even more startling – strangers. Strangers are our neighbors. 

Today, many in this country are looking at their neighbors, most of whom are strangers, as enemies because of how they voted. As Brother Isaac said recently, “Politics divide. Love in Christ unites!” He advises us, and I think we should listen:
Do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are happy about the results of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are sad or angry about the result of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are ambivalent about the result of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
Our lens is always the Empty Tomb![1]

Love of strangers is a path to healing and even resurrection. The way to eternal life is love of God and neighbor. And Jesus reveals to us today that strangers are our neighbors. Love them.
“Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong.” Everything love is not sounds like a description of our political landscape, doesn’t it? “But love rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:4-8).
The Good Samaritan loved his neighbor and he was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36-37). Even though the man was probably a Jew coming from Jerusalem – and Samaritans and Jews were at enmity with one another for both religious and ethnic reasons (Luke 10:30). And furthermore, the man was a stranger to him. It seems they never spoke – before, during, or after. But the Samaritan had compassion on him (Luke 10:33). And he loved him.

It's clear how much he loved him by the extent of inconvenience to which he was willing to subject himself for him. The Samaritan was on his own journey, but he leaves behind his own priorities to seek the good of the other even at significant personal expense of both time and money, tending the man's wounds with oil and wine and bandages, carrying him on his own beast to an inn, and paying the innkeeper two day's wages to see to the man's care (Luke 10:33-35). All this for a stranger.
When we are busy and distracted with pressing concerns, it can be easy to justify ourselves, as the lawyer did, telling ourselves that “we gave at the office” or that we will help a stranger next time, but this time we’re too busy with “matters of consequence.”[2] Well, bear in mind whose voice is actually justifying our neglect. Metropolitan Kallistos teaches us a way to distinguish between the voice of the devil and the voice of the Lord: the devil always says, “yesterday” or “tomorrow,” but the Holy Spirit always says “today.”[3]
Pious Christians laudably expend much energy in avoiding sin and not giving into temptation. Unfortunately, the habit of not giving into impulses sometimes seems to get transferred to good desires too. If you’re tempted to give, go ahead and give into it. Never resist the urge to give. Don’t avoid the eyes of strangers for fear that you’ll be tempted to give them something. Be as reckless with your kindness as you are neptic with your anger. Love both those that make you angry and those that inspire you to give – both your enemies and strangers. 
An enemy is often someone we already have strong feelings about – so they’re often on our minds – while strangers are people we're often hardly aware of. Many of us often make small decisions to avoid being troubled by strangers. A decision to look the other way as we pass them on the street. Especially if it's apparent that they're going to ask us for something – probably money – probably for drugs.

I have never come across a person stripped and beaten on the road left for dead. It's an extreme example that Jesus gives us. He likes those. I have often come upon someone with a need that I recognize. If somebody's coming up to you asking for money, let me tell you, they are in need. There's a probability that they're not in need of that which they seek. But they are in need. And to turn away from that need is unloving of the stranger. And Jesus reveals to us today is that the stranger is our neighbor.

If you have ever turned away from a person in need because you were in a hurry to get to your job or to some other obligation or pleasure – and I confess that I have – ask yourself, how would you have responded to their need if they were a loved one? Would you have turned from them if it was your son or your daughter or your husband or your wife? Would you have turned away from them if you loved them?

Jesus reveals to us today that the stranger is our neighbor. And the greatest commandment tells us to love our neighbor.

Maybe you shouldn’t always give people what they are asking for. Many people argue that persuasively, though at the same time don’t forget that Jesus says to “give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30).

Give to everyone who begs from you. Maybe don’t give everyone money, but give to them what they do need. Give your shirt also to the one who takes your coat (Luke 6:29). Give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, coats to the freezing, kindness and patience to strangers. And give love to all your neighbors, whether or not they’re from your neighborhood.

Even if your church’s neighborhood is not your neighborhood, the strangers who live all around it are still your neighbors. Even if your job is far from home, all those around you at work are your neighbors, even if they voted the other way. If you go out to eat, your servers and the jerks in the parking lot are all your neighbors. Jesus has revealed to us that our neighbors are not only our own people, but everyone – not only нас, but all. 

Loving our neighbors is part of loving God. Our Holy Father John Chrysostom, whose feast is today, is often quoted as saying that if you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.

And that extends also to everyone you meet, I believe. The image of God is in every person and that image is wholly lovable, however obscured it may be. Everyone wants to be loved by all, no matter what they say defensively, because they have been hurt.

Wanting to be loved is not a weakness. Even God wants to be loved and God is not weak. God wants to be loved and he takes the guise of the stranger. As you love strangers, that is how you love God. Remember when three strangers came to Abraham and how he ran out to meet them and bowed before them, washed their feet, and fed them bread cakes and milk and curds, and killed for them the choice calf (Gen 18:2-7). Only after did he realize he was showing hospitality to angels and to God himself. These three – men or angels – are our image of the Trinity, famously painted by Rublev. And at first they were strangers.

God, the only true Lover of us all, alone fully deserves love. But we are made in His image, and as such we also desire to love and to be loved by all, even strangers. Do unto strangers as you would have them do unto you. Love strangers as you would have them love you. Love the stranger as yourself.

[1] Br. Isaac Hughey’s Facebook Page. Accessed November 9th, 2016. 
[2] Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, chapters 7 and 13.
[3] Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia (Ware), Discovering the Inner Kingdom, (Oakwood Publications, 1997), 9. 

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