Sunday, June 3, 2018

Abandonment to the Will of God

The brothers Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen. One day, while they were casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walks by and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, they leave their nets and follow him (Matt 4:18-20).

What did they leave behind really? A few nets and their little fishing boats? “Our holy merchants traded in their nets and vessels for the perpetual life of the angels,” says St. Gregory the Great. Not a bad trade, eh? Maybe this doesn't seem like so great a sacrifice. Others have given far more.

Christ calls Peter and Andrew to be his disciples.
Mosaic. Sant'Apollinare Nouvo, Ravenna, Italy.
Sixth century.

These simple fishing nets have more in common with the two copper coins - the two mites offered by the widow to the treasury of the Temple than with the large sums put in by the rich (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). So it's worth remembering what Jesus says about that paltry gift. He says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had" (Luke 21:3-4). Likewise, Simon and Andrew left behind all the living that they had. Those nets and boats were their means of living. That was all they had. And it wasn’t as if they didn’t care about fishing either. They weren’t looking for a new gig. Not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Simon Peter stands up and says, “I’m going fishing” (John 21:3). As soon as Jesus is out of sight for a minute, Peter goes back to fishing. So I think it’s something close to his heart. Anyway, it’s what he knows. And so it is a great gift of the heart that they offer to the Lord, even if it is of little material account. Our Lord asks us to give or leave behind what we have - not to worry about what the world accounts as great or significant. Saint Gregory says, "That person has left behind a lot who keeps nothing for himself - who, though he has little, gives up everything. We [on the other hand] tend to be attached to those things we own.”

Jesus and his apostles, including Peter, will later encounter a rich young man seeking eternal life, but he will not find what he seeks - because he is so attached to what he owns and is not willing to sell his possessions and give to the poor so that he may be free to follow Jesus. Jesus says the same thing to this rich young man that he says to Andrew and Simon. He offers them the same invitation: "Follow me" (Matt 19:16-22). He addresses a simple fisherman and a rich young ruler the same way. He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). He invites all to leave behind all they have and to follow him, but not all accept his invitation.

A good metaphor for this leaving all to follow Christ is that of marriage. Before we can cleave to our spouse, we must leave our parents. “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). It’s definitely worth it, and we understand that when it comes to marriage. It’s even more worth it when it comes to union with God in Jesus Christ, to which marriage points and for which marriage is. But before the cleaving, first must come the leaving, and that’s the part we have some trouble with. Before the Church can cleave to her bridegroom Christ, she must leave behind worldly things. We must “set aside all earthly cares,” as we repeat in the Cherubic Hymn.

“Peter and Andrew left much behind,” says St. Gregory. They left behind “covetousness and the very desire to own. That person has left much behind who renounces - with the thing owned - the very coveting of that thing... You will leave much behind [in holy imitation of those who disdain this world], if you renounce earthly desires... This will be enough for the Lord, since he looks at the heart and not at our material goods."

This works in the inverse as well. If we are grasping and covetous, even if it is only over some small thing, that will be enough to destroy us and damn us to hell. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky retells a parable, which some of you will probably have heard also because Metropolitan Kallistos Ware loves to retell it as well:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.' The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away (Ch. 3).

It was only an onion the woman claimed as her own and would not share with others. That was enough to break it - to destroy its true salvific purpose. It’s not about how much we have to let go of - this was a peasant woman who didn’t have much. It’s about letting go of everything we do have - of whatever we’re attached to that isn’t the Lord - whether it is great or small in the eyes of the world. If it is more precious to us than the Lord and the image of God, which is in our neighbors and strangers, our enemies and our friends, then, even if it is only an onion, it is an idol and will drag us to hell.

If there's something we won't let go of, then when it comes time to meet the Lord in the air, we'll find we have a millstone tied around our neck weighing us down and preventing our ascent (1 Thess 4:17). If we’re going to be taken up to heaven, we're going to have to let go of our attachment to earthly things - to cut anchor even as our ship bobs like a cork in what seems like a treacherous sea.

I’m not just talking about things here - as in material possessions - although those are a frequent stumbling block for us - but also any of our earthly attachments or aspirations or desires or ambitions. I’m talking about our own will. If Andrew and Peter and James and John are good examples of self-abandonment to the will of God (and they are - look at the immediacy with which they left all to follow him), Jesus is a still better example.

Here is the Lord, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6). The Lord did not grasp even his equality with God, but emptied himself. And we hesitate even to walk away from fishnets – from our earthly toils and vain anxieties.

Jesus, on the other hand, “being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And listen to what he says to his Father in Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39; Luke 22:42). Not as I will, but as you will. Total and perfect abandonment to the inscrutable and mysterious will of the Father. That’s what we’re called to.

Ultimately, it is not only things that we must leave behind, but even our own will. We must give up on trying to get our own way and follow instead the Lord, who is the way, and who says to us, “Follow me.” He alone will lead us to perfect love and to eternal life. All it will cost is everything.

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