The following homily was preached by Deacon Nicholas Denysenko at St. Katherine Greek Orthodox parish in Redondo Beach, California, on Sunday, November 27. The appointed Gospel: Luke 18:18-27.
What Can we Say about God?
As a teacher, I deal in the business of fundamental questions. The timing of the question posed by the rich lawyer to Jesus in today’s Gospel could not have better timing. We hear this Gospel on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. No, our liturgical calendar does not observe American Thanksgiving, but the appointment of the lesson to today is perhaps an act of divine providence for us.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” We care about this question because of the inevitability of death. It is natural for us to want to cling to life, to avert death, to postpone it, so each and every one of us should be attuned to the lawyer’s question. The lawyer also asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. How can eternal life be passed on to the lawyer? For centuries, teachers of our Church have drawn upon the writings of the apostles and the fathers to state how we can make eternal life our inheritance. We are supposed to be good people who love our families and follow divine law, who follow the rules and do not hurt others. If we do these things, we can call ourselves Christians and inherit eternal life. In reality, we are speaking of meriting eternal life, not inheriting it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus turns our system of meritocracy and salvation upside down. Jesus acknowledges that the lawyer has done many good things. He does indeed follow all of the commandments. But he lacks a fundamental dimension: he still needs to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and become a follower of Jesus.
Please join me in thinking about this for a moment. If we literally sold everything we had and gave it away: what would that mean? How would our lives change?
If you are sad or skeptical or just want to ignore this particular part of the message, then you’re in good company. St. Luke tells us that the lawyer was sad because he was very rich. Well, wouldn’t you be sad, too? Which one of us here is ready to give everything away to become one of Jesus’ disciples? Isn’t it possible to negotiate this “offer”? Can’t we keep a few things and still follow Jesus?
Jesus’ teaching is a hard one – most of the fundamental teachings of the Gospel are, indeed, hard to observe. Honestly, which one of us here loves our enemies and turns the other cheek to them? Perhaps a few holy ones!
What Jesus presents to us today is the price of discipleship. We must be ready to give up everything to be his disciples. He does not say that it will be easy or that our friends and colleagues will applaud us and give us a banquet if we give up everything to follow him. But he still requires it for discipleship!
Before we walk away and chalk this teaching up to yet another one that only a few devout people can follow, please consider this. When we leave here today, filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we will confront the message lingering from Black Friday: buy things! Gather possessions! If you’re young and in love, buy something shiny and expensive for your beloved, to gain his or her favor! Show your friends you love them by getting them really cool things. Help the economy!
Imagine what would happen if in this season, Christians worked together to send a different message. This message would be one of joint devotion to discipleship in Christ. We would consider what we can live without, and live simply. We would devote the season of Advent – preparing for Christmas – by giving as much as possible to the poor. We would capture the spirit of giving in Advent and make it our habit throughout the year.
The news services would eagerly anticipate Advent as the time when people give freely of themselves for the sake of the poor. We would see their faces – their true faces – but we would not know the names of the givers because they regarded God’s gift of eternal life as more precious than all earthly rewards for philanthropy combined.
Anticipation of a season where cheerful and well-intentioned Christians become icons of God, who is the divine Gift-Giver, would mark the transition of the impossible to the possible. Here’s what we can say about God: God is the divine gift-giver who grants us the capacity to become givers through his grace. If we respond to this invitation, we would shed our extra weight because we want to be Christ’s disciples. And we would learn a valuable lesson through it all: you can become a disciple of Christ only if you love the poor and wish to serve them. Those who accept this invitation come to learn that service to the poor is really receiving a gift from the poor, when we realize that we are the ones who are poor and need the poor for our own salvation.
Jesus’ teaching is hard, and it begins with a simple step. During this season, each and every one of us must think about this fundamental teaching. We know we want eternal life: so, we must ask ourselves: what can I live without that will enable me to become a disciple of Jesus Christ? If we answer this question honestly, we’ll learn that we are capable of freeing ourselves not only from possessions, but also from habits, lifestyles, and addictions. And we have hope – God makes it possible for us to become his disciples, and not only disciples, but also his sons and daughters who are worthy of inheriting – not meriting – eternal life. This is why we Orthodox have referred to God as Philanthropos for centuries – may we become gift-givers by the grace of his son, Jesus Christ, and thus truly become his partners in bringing joy to the world this Christmas.