In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul gives a final blessing, which we heard today. He says, “May the God of Peace render you perfect in every good work, doing in you His will and that which is well pleasing to Him.” The great thrust of this epistle has been to demonstrate how the Law and the Prophets lead to Christ and are fulfilled in Him and to emphasize the central necessity of faith by which we are saved. Now here at the end, the Apostle asks God to render us perfect in the doing of His will – in other words he shifts the emphasis from faith to works. But this is not really a shift – it is in fact a rendition of what the Apostle James also says that “faith without works is dead”. We cannot have faith without works, nor can we have any works of righteousness, pleasing before God, without faith. These two things go together.
Faith – that is what we believe – informs our works, it shapes how we live our life, what choices we make. If indeed we believe Jesus Christ, then we will work diligently to order our lives according to His commandments and be careful to do that which He instructs us. We have to have faith in order to have works which are effective and living. However, if we say we have faith, but do not make that faith real in our lives by what we do and how we live, then our faith is nothing but empty words and has no real life. Our works reflect our faith and they actualize our faith, making it real in ourselves.
The Apostle Paul here emphasizes the doing of God’s will – not just in a satisfactory manner, but in a perfect manner; “may God render you perfect in the doing of His will” he says. And the way that he chooses to say this is also important for he makes that point that God is doing this work in you. By ourselves, we are incapable of doing God’s will, but God Himself works in us, accomplishing for us that which is otherwise impossible – the perfect doing of His will.
Keeping this in mind, let us now hear the words of our Lord recorded in the Gospel, He also calls us not to be “good enough” but to be perfect, surpassing the “goodness” of the world and instead striving for the likeness of the Divine perfection. He takes three examples and shows us how it is that we, as His followers, must surpass the righteousness of the world. “If you love those who love you what is remarkable about that for even sinners do this.” “If you do good things to those who are good to you what is remarkable about that for even sinners do the same.” And, “If you give to those who will repay, then what is remarkable about that for even sinners do the same.” We are not called to this “average” righteousness, rather we are called by our Lord to surpass this righteousness for He says to us, “Love your enemies.” “Do good to those who hate you.” And “Give without hoping for any return”.
We have been called to act no longer as men, but to act as God Himself acts. The first line of the portion of the Gospel that we heard today is often quoted and has been made into a kind of motto for a worldly kind of goodness. “As you would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” or as we are more often likely to hear it phrased, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the so-called golden rule which is at the heart of so much of the world’s ethics and morality. In many other religions the same kind of principle can be found as a standard to which men should aspire in their relationships with others. But as the world understands this, the doing of good is a kind of reciprocal thing – if you are nice to me, I’ll be nice to you and we’ll all get along fine. But Jesus Christ shows us a more excellent way that goes far beyond “getting along”. He says to us not just to love those who love us – but love your enemies. Don’t just do good to those who are good to you – but to do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. Don’t just lend expecting a return – but give to every man that asks of you and if someone takes your goods away by force, don’t try to reclaim them from him. This is the difference between being a “good person” and being a follower of Jesus Christ. He says elsewhere to His disciples, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To be a Christian is nothing less than to be like God. And this kind of life is not something we can do on our own – we have to depend on God to prefect this good work in us.
What then is the purpose of all this? Why do we aspire to such great heights? Why do we go so overboard in ordering our lives? Again in the Gospel we heard our Lord say, “But love ye your enemies, do good, and lend hoping for nothing again; and your reward will be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest.” Did you hear that – God intends for us to be His children, to share, in as much as it is possible, His own nature. We are destined not only to be “like God” but to become gods by His grace which He bestows upon us as He Himself is God by nature. He is Light and the source of all light and we shall be filled with that light so as to become, as it were, small lights within the Great Light.
If we follow Christ; if we have faith, that is if we believe Him and if we act on that faith making it real in our lives, then our lives are consumed with following the commandments of God – doing as He instructs – so that we can acquire that salvation which He freely offers to us. We do not “earn” His grace by our works, rather He pours out His grace upon us and it is by our works that we are able reach out and take hold of it and use it in such a manner that we are filled with His light and transformed into His likeness.
It is not enough, however, to know that this is what we should do and to know that God has promised to make us His children. That vision of union and communion with God must become for us a reality, something that we experience on a daily basis. Without this reality, the vision will break down, we will not be strong enough to hold onto it. How do we get this reality? First by changing the way we see our lives. Remember that everything in our lives comes to us from God and provides a means by which we can follow Him (or, if we mishandle it and do not respond in a God-pleasing manner, it becomes a doorway to sin). For this reason whatever happens to us should be an opportunity to give thanks to God – even if it is something unpleasant. When we see every event of our lives as the opportunity to draw near to God then our lives take on a new dimension – a spiritual dimension. We have to change our values so that we no longer evaluate “good” and “bad” in terms of the world’s ideas, but rather we take on God’s perspective and that which is “good” is that which brings us closer to Him while that which is “bad” is that which becomes a barrier between us and Him. Now that we have redefined our outlook and our values, it is time to change our behavior so that we are always looking to get what is good – we do those works that bring us good things. And we are right back where we began with the relationship between faith and works. It is our works that make our faith real – not only real to those around us but real to ourselves. If you want to experience the reality of the Kingdom of God and God’s presence in your own life, then keep His commandments – live according to His will and you will begin to see how He brings to you the good things that draw you closer to Him.
Keep this then in your mind and your heart – if you wish to follow Christ, then you must first begin with faith, with the “right belief” that informs your works. Then you must act according to that faith to make it real in your life. As you gain more and more experience in the reality of your faith, that is in the reality of the Kingdom of God in your life, then you will begin to see the fulfillment of God’s promise in yourself. You will become a child of God, like Him not only in how you act or appear in the world, but also internally, in your soul where you will become filled with the light of His grace and become a bearer of His light immersed in His glory.
As Fall approaches, and we observe the change in season – the cooling temperature, the falling leaves, and the waning daylight – for many it is the time to start clearing our gardens of this year’s plants and preparing the garden for a fresh start next year. Certainly there is plenty of work to be done at this time, but now is not the time to be planting tomatoes, cucumbers, or corn. It is too late to sow those seeds because even if we have some of these left in the garden, it is time to be harvesting them, not planting them. Soon there will be frost, and what remains will be left in ruin.
When we depart this life, or when the Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, it will no longer be the season to sow seeds, but will be time for the harvest. This present life is the time for sowing seeds. Though we see signs of the coming change of seasons, yet we still are in the season for sowing. We reap that which we sow. And on this Sunday, Saint Paul tells us to sow bountifully that we might reap bountifully.
Saint Paul is speaking here of almsgiving, of financially supporting the apostolic work, of giving freely and cheerfully of what has been given to us. How often have we worried about how our money will be used? Do we wonder if the beggar on the street will use the money we give them for alcohol or drugs instead of food? Do we worry about how the taxes we pay will be spent? Are we concerned about how much return we will get on investments that we make? Do we hesitate to give money to friends or family out of fear that we will never be repaid? All these worldly concerns have a basis in reality. The beggar may cause himself harm with the money we give, the government might waste tax money or use it for immoral purposes, the things we invest in might collapse and go bankrupt, and those we lend to may never pay us back. But the mistake we make is thinking that it is our money which is lost, wasted, or causing ruin.
We are entrusted with seeds in this life in the hopes of a good harvest in the life to come. Our riches, whether they are great or meager, are given to us that we might use them for the glory of God, for the building up of His Church, for the care of one another. We see in the lives of the Saints countless examples of those who sold all that they had and gave to the poor to have treasure in heaven. We also see examples of those who continually gave away whatever would be given to them. And yet none of them starved. The Psalmist tells us that “rich men have turned poor and gone hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing.” Even if we were to give away all that we have, we would not be in want because God provides for us. Saint Paul tells us that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.” There is an abundance of grace, there is treasure in heaven, but there is also sufficiency in this life.
The righteous works that we do in this life endure into the next. The harvest comes from the seeds planted, but we must plant them. When we look at our stewardship of the riches that God entrusts to us, most of us turn a blind eye to some of the things we spend money on. We might gladly spend money on dining out, entertainment, fancy gadgets, clothing or jewelry, but be far more guarded when it comes to other areas of our life. And while these things are not inherently sinful by themselves, a seed not planted means less fruit when the time of harvest comes.
This is not to say that we should sow indiscriminately. A gardener may sow carefully but not sparingly. But pay attention to what you hope to reap. Food and drink, no matter how delicious, bring joy for a moment and then are gone. It doesn’t much matter how much joy it brings if that joy passes away. But food and drink given to the hungry and thirsty build up treasure in heaven. Even food and drink shared in fellowship and love can be seeds planted for eternal life. Be careful not to sow only where there is hope of temporary or material benefit.
Having an abundance of seeds leftover at harvest time is of no consolation when we are without the fruits of the harvest. When God presents you with an opportunity to help others, to give of what has been given to you do so. In this morning’s gospel we hear of Saint Peter who gave his boat to be used by Christ to go out on the lake and preach to the multitudes. For this small act of charity he was rewarded with more fish than he could have caught otherwise and became a disciple of the Lord. The treasure he acquired that day was more than we could hope for, but the act itself was small. Each seed that we plant is such a small thing, until we see the fruit that comes from it.
We are told to be cheerful givers, not merely because it benefits others, but because it is to our even greater benefit. When we can give cheerfully, freely, and generously, we begin to see that giving is not deprivation it is the beginning of abundance.
So how do we become cheerful givers? For most of us, we need to begin with our acquisitiveness and greed. Consider your motives. Do you seek to enrich yourself for comfort, for prestige, or for power? Do you hold on to what you have out of fear or anxiety? Keep these things in mind, so that when you are in a position to give, or when it is requested of you, you can recognize these motives and reject them. Break the hold of greed and avarice by giving to others when these temptations attack you.
If you must be greedy, be greedy for heavenly riches. In the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, we pray: Remember, O Lord, those who bear fruit and do good works in thy holy churches, and who remember the needy; requite them with thy rich and heavenly gifts; give them things heavenly for things earthly, things eternal for things temporal, things incorruptible for things corruptible.” When it comes to this present life, our well-being depends on God. Though we are inclined to forget it, we live one step away from drought, famine, pestilence or disease. We can toil and labor for our material benefit and still find ourselves deprived and in need. When it comes to things spiritual, however, we have been given control. We have been entrusted with the seeds for our spiritual nourishment, growth and well-being. We must sow these seeds abundantly now while it is the season for doing so, and our merciful Lord has promised that if we do so we will reap far more abundantly in the Kingdom which is to come.
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