We Orthodox like to think of ourselves as the true believers, as belonging to the one and only true Church of Christ — and rightly so!! However, we should always keep in mind the words of the Lord we heard today: “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the Kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Mt. 8: 10-12).
Today we met precisely such a person: a true believer, who although was not among the elect, nevertheless displayed the true faith and became an inheritor of the Kingdom. Whereas many among us who are among the elect will not make it. These are the two groups of people we are going to contemplate on today: those who are in and those who are out, and on our common call to live a life of faith and commitment.
First, let us look at us, who are in, the “cradle Orthodox.” How do the words of the Lord quoted above apply to us? Try doing what I do at times: substitute “Orthodox” for “Israel” and “Jews.” In this instance we would have:
“Truly, I say to you, not even in the Orthodox Church have I found such faith. I tell you, many non-Orthodox will come and sit with the Saints in the Kingdom of heaven, while those who are Orthodox by name only will be thrown into the outer darkness.”
Scary, isn’t? It is nevertheless true. This reflection should have only one aim: To turn us around, so that we become in deed what we claim to be by name — True Believers!
In the first place, we Orthodox should realize that we are not a privileged class. We were born into the true faith, but we did not do anything of our own to deserve special treatment, rights and privileges. Actually this predilection carries with it obligations. We need to rise to the lofty call. We should always bear in mind the words that St. John the Baptist addressed to the Jews:
“Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Lk. 3:8; cf. Mt. 3:9).
Now, please, pay attention and listen carefully, because we want to emphasize this point: If God can raise up children to Abraham from stones, He can certainly raise true Christians out of Baptists and Pentecostals — and Jews and Moslems as well! If we, the New Israel, will turn our back to God, God will seek out His elect out of the innocent followers of heresy and schism and false belief! We don’t want to be misunderstood on this important subject, although there are those who will distort everything according to their crooked minds.
Let those of good will bear in mind the parable of the Great Banquet: The guests (that’s us), refused to go, but “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” made it! (cf. Lk. 14:16-24) Yes, my friends. Being Orthodox, belonging to the true Church of Christ, is not a guarantee of salvation. We repeat: There is no preferential treatment, there are no guarantees, only obligations. Here are two Biblical examples to support what we say: Two of the Lord’s disciples, John and James, thought that they could secure special spots in the Kingdom, because they had privileged positions. The Lord told them not to seek assurances, but to rely on God’s mercy (cf. Mt. 20:20-24). Even His Mother, in her exalted position, was not privileged. She too had to rise to her call. “Who is my Mother?” the Lord asked; and replied, Those who do God’s will (cf. Mt. 12:46-50).
To the Jews who were priding themselves in having Abraham as their father, the Lord said:
“If you were children of Abraham, you would do Abraham’s works” (John 8:39).
What are Abraham’s works? They are faith, hope, love (the theological virtues); they are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance (the cardinal virtues); they are the fruits of the Holy Spirit we heard in today’s epistle reading: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; and all the other Christian virtues: compassion, forgiveness, humility, obedience and dispassion. Then there is the ascetical life, prayer, denial, fasting, suffering, quietude, sobriety, contrition, vigils, and the whole life in Christ. Unless we do such works, calling ourselves Orthodox not only is of no help, but would work out against us! The Lord said:
“Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Lk. 12:48).
Saint Paul also asks in his letter to the Romans: “Who is a real Jew?”, and if you want, substitute again Orthodox for Jew, so we would have:
“Who is a true Orthodox?“ And replies: “Not one who is Orthodox on the outside…, rather the real Orthodox is one who is Orthodox on the inside…” (Rom. 2:28.29).
Who were those who thought they were “inside,” but in reality were “outside”? Who else, but the scribes and the Pharisees. They did everything by the book. They fulfilled the law to the most minute detail. But they were rejected, because they honored God with their lips, not with their heart. To the chief priests and the elders the Lord had these ominous words to say: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). Adding:
“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Mt. 21:43).
To those of us who don’t display the fruits of repentance and the life in Christ, the Lord says,
“it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Mt. 11:22).
Saint Paul quotes these words from the prophet Isaiah:
“Even if the Orthodox1 are as many as the grains of sand by the sea, yet only a few of them will be saved” (Rom. 9:27).
And further down, quoting once more from the prophet Isaiah, he says:
“I was found by those who were not looking for me; I appeared to those who were not asking for me.”
But concerning the Orthodox He says:
“All day long I held out my hands to welcome a disobedient and rebellious people” (Rom. 10:20-21).
That’s us. And it seems that these words of the Lord apply to us today more than ever before. Yes, my friends, I submit to you that unless we read and interpret the Book this way, and mirror ourselves in it, we have indeed missed the point — the “point” being salvation and the way to achieve it!˝
We now turn to the other group, those who are “outside.” Saint Paul has a few things to tell us about them as well, in this same letter to the Romans. Toward the end of chapter nine he quotes from prophet Hosea:
“The people who were not mine I will call ‘My people’. The nation that I did not love I will call “my Beloved.’ And in the very place where they were told, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called the sons of the living God” (vv. 25-26).
The Jews had the Law, they had the promises, they had the prophets, they were the “children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Nevertheless, they rejected the eagerly expected Messiah, and therefore they lost the only Way to the Kingdom. The Lord can do the same thing with us, the new Nation, who keep rebelling against Him. Since we abandon Him, He can turn to the non-Orthodox to fill His heavenly mansions.
In his letter to the Galatians Saint Paul quotes once more from Isaiah:
“The children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married” (Gal. 4:27).
What do these words mean? Is Saint Paul talking only about the Jews? No, he is also addressing us, as much if not more than he was addressing the Jews. The scripture speaks to us, today, and says: If the Church (the married one) won’t conceive and bear children with the seed of the Holy Spirit, then the barren one (the non-Orthodox), who does not have the sacraments, grace, the Holy Spirit, and is not the true Church, will nevertheless produce children, which will be holy in the eyes of God.
Thus the Lord may turn to us, as He turned to the Jews, saying: “You say that [my Father] is your God” (John 8:54), in other words, You claim that only you have the true faith in the true God, and therefore you claim that God is exclusively yours (don’t we Orthodox claim as much?). But He may turn the same terrible words to us: “Yet, you have not known Him” (John 8:55). What He said about the Jews He may say about us, namely:
“They have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:3).
Who knows the Father? Who knows the Son? Who is in the Church? Who does the will of God? He who in humility and abandonment turns to God, asking for His mercy: the Centurion, the thief on the cross, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman with an issue of blood, the Canaanite woman, the Samaritans and the misfits… Is it a coincidence that all these “non-believers” believed, while many “believers” remain basically unrepentant disbelievers and unbelievers? The Centurion was not a natural child of Abraham; but he was more of a child to him, than his natural children. Let’s repeat it one more time: Being Orthodox by birth and by heritage gives us no privileges and rights. If anything, it gives us more obligations and responsibilities: To live our faith as we preach it.
We are not doing better than the Jews, in fact we are doing a lot worse, because we have been given so much more, and yet we remain disbelievers, nominal Christians. What is it going to take to move us to repentance, to see ourselves for what we are? St. Stephen addressed his co-nationals with the words:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so you do. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?” (Acts 7:51-52)
Do you want me to translate it for you? If you don’t see it, you won’t accept it, but I will explain it nevertheless. Translation:
“You unbending, proud, heardheaded, and disobedient people, who refuse to open wide your ears and your hearts to hear and accept the truth, who refuse to show a good disposition and a willingness to receive the truth. You continue doing as you and your fathers did before you: persecute and chase away every priest that God has sent to you. You do not oppose simply a priest — you oppose the Holy Spirit, Who ordained them and appointed them to this ministry.”
What our Faith should produce
My dear Christians: The Lord is looking for the fruits of our repentance, for actions which show that we have truly turned to Him. The Lord quoted Isaiah, saying:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt. 15:8).
What does God want is admirably expressed in the most moving lines of the 50th Psalm (51st in Western Bibles):
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a humble heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
A humble heart; that’s what moves God. Not arrogance and pride, conceit and boastfulness, self praise and haughtiness, envy and jealousy. A humble heart, like the Centurion’s.
Let us, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, produce fruits worthy of our faith. Let us demonstrate that we truly are His followers, that we are His elect, that we belong to Him, and Him alone.
And now I ask you: Where is the triumphalism, where is the haughtiness and the arrogance we Orthodox are accused of by our critics? Where do we say we are better? Where do we say we are saved? Where do we condemn others? Let our accusers open their ears and listen. But that’s not enough; they need to open their hearts and accept the word of God in humility and simplicity of heart. Can they do it?
Let us pray with the Centurion: “O Lord, we are not worthy to have You come to our hearts; but only say the word and our souls shall be healed.” Amen.
photo by T.H.
- Again, we substitute for ‘the sons of Israel’.