Orthodox Christian





( Heb 12:1-10, Matt.6:14-21)

 Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther

Today’s epistle exhorts us to follow the saints.  The previous chapter has given examples of Old Testament heroes who struggled to remain faithful to God.  The reading means this: ‘If they could do that, so can you, because your fulfilment is the salvation given by Jesus through his Cross.’  The reading begins with a challenge:

‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on ever side of us, we too… should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started.’ 

That race began with baptism, when the baby was anointed with oil before entering the water: oil to reduce the friction of the impediments of sin. ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection: for the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it, and from now on has taken his place at the right of God’s throne.’ Jesus is our example.

The epistle tells us, who have seen the mysteries of faith, to testify to what we have seen.  That is martyria - to tell the truth about our faith; and the best way to tell that, is to be that: to live as icons of Christ.  The writer goes on: ‘…when the Lord corrects you, do not treat it lightly; but do not get discouraged when he reprimands you.’  Then the hard point: ‘Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons.  Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him?’  The point is that God when he punishes us ‘does it all for our own good, so that we may share his own holiness.’

The gospel reading comes after the Sermon on the Mount (ch 5).  Jesus has described the Kingdom of heaven by showing that merciful action and purity of heart are its cornerstones. In chapter 6, from the point where Jesus has just taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13), the emphasis is on getting closer to God by personal discipline. When the prayer asks: ‘may your name be held holy’, we should remember the Old Testament heroes again, for it is a petition always connected with their martyria.  The Lord’s Prayer faces life with direct joy, and puts a severe burden on the person who prays it. ‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.’

Forgiveness is necessary. As S. Maximos the Confessor says, when we ask God to forgive us our debts we ask him to imitate us as we have forgiven the debts owed to us by others. The person who wants to be forgiven must let the memory of offences against him become obliterated, so that he may not be separated from others.  When a person’s will is united with ‘the principle of nature in this way, God and nature are naturally reconciled.’  Otherwise, says Maximos, ‘our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God’s gift of Himself.’ Because Maximos argued against Monothelitism that Jesus had both a human will and a divine will; and because Maximos was punished in 662 for his faith, being flogged and having his tongue plucked out and his right hand cut off, before being exiled to the Caucasus, we see that the cost of forgiveness may be extremely high. Maximos knew what he meant when he spoke of the need to unite our human will with Jesus, the gift of God. And Jesus proved that by forgiving even from the deathbed of the Cross.  Christians should always pay the price of reconciliation. Let us think only of the sufferings which we may cause to one another and our need to repent of what we have done, and the great cost of having to forgive someone who has harmed us. ‘Suffering is part of [our] training.’

This gospel reading is about living our faith. The purpose is righteousness, an attempt to reflect the holiness of God.  Firstly, there is giving alms, without publicity.  Secondly, there is prayer.  Nothing is more difficult to understand; for if God knows everything, there is nothing we can say which needs to be said – except to make us aware of who he is, and what we are, and what is the relationship. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we face our world: ‘on earth as in heaven… our daily bread… forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.’

And thirdly, in gaining a quality of life closer to God’s life, we need to fast.  The purpose is to strengthen our prayer and our will to do good.  This should be done, like giving alms and like our personal prayers, without drawing attention: with modesty, in quiet.  As Jesus says, ‘… when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’   There is a double meaning here.  Jesus does not want exaggerated behaviour; but the other meaning is that metaphorical sense of anointing: the changing of the inner life, thus making our whole outward life joyful.

Finally, the gospel reading contrasts inner value and material wealth. ‘Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth… But store up treasures for yourselves in heaven… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’  If our giving alms, praying and fasting are meant to attract attention, then we are trying to build up the wealth of a worldly reputation.  But if we do these things secretly, as if they are of no material advantage, then we are investing long-term in the Bank of God’s Providence.  We take a risk in faith.

Preparing to reduce our diet from one already without meat to one without dairy products is a serious moment.  Are we doing this to control our will and our sense of inner space?  Or are we trying to compete in the worldly sense?  Most Christians live in the world with relationships and economic obligations.  But the problem of being a Christian in the world is solved in the same way that it is solved for the monk.  Real value is in the things of the spirit; real life is the life of the spirit; real fulfilment in the race of spiritual development means to throw off ‘everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started.’

It is easy to return to the Temple with the Pharisee and say all that he said, but we should be more conscious of being like the Tax Collector. So in the words of the epistle,  ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’. ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’

© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.

Sunday, March 9 2003.

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