THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN APPROACH
Wisdom from the Gospel according to St. Matthew: observations and deductions
by an experienced spiritual counselor and pastor
by Archimandrite Timotheos Pantelakos
We need the power of God to help us in our every day life. One way to obtain the power of God is to read the Scriptures together as a family, or even two or three families together. It does not require a lot of explaining. Just simply read it. A good way is to have each member of the family read a verse until a chapter is read. In this way we will acquaint our children with the Scriptures. If we succeed in doing this, these same children will grow up to be children of God.
In the first chapter of Matthew we read about how God accomplished the greatest work of the ages through the Virgin Mary. Yet we never hear the Virgin Mary boast or make a show of herself. The only times we hear her words are when she visits the mother of John the Baptist and again at the wedding in Cana.
From the Virgin Mary we learn that God does His work quietly and simply. We ourselves should not be concerned if we do not see our name or our picture in the newspaper, or do not achieve worldly importance. We can do God's work wherever we are, at work, among our friends, and especially in our family. The development and rounding out of character is the most important work in life.
In doing God's work we all stand on an equal footing: the sick and the healthy, the poor and the rich, the uneducated and the educated, because we all have an equal opportunity to serve Him. The things of God are concerned with principles and not external circumstances. Even sickness can serve a spiritual advantage if we meet it in the spirit of Christian faith. When we are sick, we experience a sense of humility before God and men because we realize how weak and impotent we are. When we are well and are fortunate enough to be making money or achieving success, we are always in danger of being proud and giving little heed either to God or men. Our bodily sickness heals this spiritual sickness. Hatred, anger, and jealousy depart: we forgive everybody and we love everybody. Sickness serves as a spiritual corrective, and we should accept it that way.
As we read the second chapter of Matthew, we ask ourselves why King Herod did not avail himself of the opportunity to see and worship Christ, as the wise men and shepherds did. The answer is: because Herod did not have the spirit of God within him. None of us can hear the voice of God unless we have within us the spirit of God. It is somewhat the same as with the radio or television. If we are tuned to a certain station, we receive the frequencies of that station and hear its program. We cannot receive the sounds of another station. So it is with us. If we are tuned to hear God's voice, we will feel His power and sense His beauty. The Grace of God is everywhere like the air around us, but we must have faith in order to be tuned in to it. God speaks to us in many ways in answer to our prayers: through a book, or another person, through a vision or a dream, or even through nature. Once a man told me that his prayer was answered as he was observing a bird outside his window.
In the third chapter of Matthew we read about the ancestry of John the Baptist. The Hebrews thought that the farther back one could trace his ancestry, the more important he was. St. John challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees who were powerful Jewish sects, calling them. "O generation of vipers!" and drawing their attention to the fact that the name alone was not enough to make them children of Abraham. Abraham stands for a type of character and a quality of life. Those who measure up to it are children of Abraham, not just those who are descendants in name.
The same can he said about us Christians. Most of us are Christians in name only. We do not see how foolish we are to cheat ourselves in this way. We alone are the losers because our lives are empty of what would give us strength, light, joy, freedom, and spiritual peace-the Christian life.
The end of chapter three tells us about the Baptism of our Lord when the doctrine of the Holy Trinity became known to us. The importance of this event is that it prevents us from thinking of God as a mere abstraction. In the Holy Trinity God reveals Himself in the form of a social relationship-a social Being like ourselves. This is as it should be, for we are created in His likeness as the Scriptures tell us. The revelation of the Holy Trinity in Three Persons tells us that the basic characteristic of God is love. In the form of love we shall understand the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, because love is never solitary, but is always a link between two persons. We cannot say that love ever existed by itself without the object with which it is bound together. If we put love in the place of the Father, we have the Son with Whom the love is bound together. The Two always existed, and in place of what binds the Two together, we put the Holy Spirit which flows from the Father as the Creed tells us. So the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the Three Persons of one Godhead, each person including within himself the whole of divinity.
The fourth chapter of Matthew tells us about the temptation of our Lord after He was baptized. Every one of us has to go through temptation. It is as much a part of life as the air we breathe. Young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy or sick; hermits, monks, or nuns; those who live together in towns and cities-all have to suffer temptation. No one is excepted. Why is this? It is because our mission here on earth is the development of our spiritual personality. The only thing that matters in the eyes of God is the degree of perfection we achieve in the likeness of Him. The spirit which we have received from God is the reason why we are called the children of God: this we must develop until it saturates our whole being and masters us entirely. To develop this spirit of God within ourselves is the purpose of our lives. If we fail in this, we have lost everything.
Our efforts to achieve the spirit of God are like the student at school. When he is registered, he becomes a student, but to acquire knowledge, he must work. We are called the children of God in the same way the student is registered in school-not because of our worthiness, but as a gift from God to us through His Son. This gift is called God's Grace. But to acquire the necessary knowledge and receive the diploma of the Holy Spirit in godliness which proves that we have become God's children, not merely by God's Grace, but by the test of life-this requires work.
The goal of school and the goal of spiritual perfection differ because the school develops knowledge while the life in Christ-that is to say, in the Church-develops holiness of character. Where can we work at becoming sons of God? Wherever we happen to be. We do not have to go here or there: it can be accomplished wherever we are.
Every time we choose the good, we become more godly, more Christlike. On the other hand, every time we choose the evil, we become more devilish, more evil in spirit. Therefore, whenever we do good or bad, we benefit or hurt our own selves. That is why St. John Chrysostom says that no one can hurt you spiritually unless you hurt your own self. The choice between good and evil is the spiritual gymnasium where the moral battle takes place and character is formed. We do not have to go here and there to accomplish perfection in the likeness of Christ.
Our earthly life serves two purposes: it infuses in us at birth the spirit of God and provides a place for the moral-spiritual battle and the development of character to take place. Where is the moral gymnasium? It is not in the mountains, the valleys, the trees, or the animals. Nature supplies for us only the needs of our bodies. The moral gymnasium is to be found in our social relationships. We are moral and spiritual beings. As we are called upon to choose between good and evil, a moral conflict takes place, and when we make the choice, we either help to perfect ourselves in the spirit of God, if we choose the good, or in the spirit of evil if we choose the bad.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that after Jesus was baptized, He was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days, and naturally was very hungry. The Tempter came to Him and said, "If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread." Jesus answered, "It is written that man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that issues from the mouth of God." (Matt. 4:1-6)
Bread and hunger symbolize man's material needs. When one is hungry, he faces a strong temptation to steal, kill, or commit some evil. Our Lord teaches us by His example to place ourselves above the temptation for material needs. We should do as He did, and rise victorious over temptation. This means that we should prefer to die of hunger rather than to do what is evil. When we lack money and face strong temptation, then is our greatest opportunity for spiritual victory, to win our crowns as the sons of God. When I was in Connecticut, I heard of a man who was hungry and without money, but he decided that he would prefer to die rather than go and steal or do any other evil. What happened? Not only did he not die, but he was rewarded by God with the power to heal the sick.
We are still not a truly ethical society. The production and distribution of goods is not conditioned by ethical considerations. Hunger exists, although our storage houses are full of food supplies.
Christianity is not devoted, or we may say, shows no preference for this or that economic system. From the Christian point of view the root of the evil is not in the system but in the spirit. If our minds are occupied with material objectives, there will be injustice, exploitation, and suffering regardless of the system, because the spirit of materialism makes us consider only ourselves and not care for other people. With the spirit of God the opposite is true. A man with the spirit of God says. "Your life is my life; your advantage is my advantage: your progress is my progress. We stand or fall together."
If we follow the example of God, justice and equality will prevail here on earth in the jurisdiction of man as it does in the jurisdiction of God. For instance, in God's jurisdiction the sun shines alike for all; the air blows alike for all; death comes to all alike: the laws of nature work the same for everyone, and so does the moral and ethical law of God. If we violate the laws of nature, we will be punished, regardless of the person we happen to be. When we arrange our affairs to be like God's so that justice and equality prevail in the matters which are in our jurisdiction as they do in the jurisdiction of God, then we shall be truly the children of God as our Lord says, "that we may be the sons of our Father in Heaven." (Matt. 5:45) We can see that we have quite far to go yet to approach our Heavenly Father.
Once a man who was dishing out food for a party divided the food unequally, giving more to some and less to others. He explained this by saying that he did exactly as God does who makes some people rich and others poor. We see right away that this man's reasoning is not correct, because the economic system, regardless of what it is, is not in God's jurisdiction. The economic system is in our jurisdiction and of our own making. So also are education and the social and political systems.
Our Lord was victorious over the temptation of hunger. Next the Tempter tempted Him with vanity and the desire to show off. The spirit of vanity is a strong temptation; much more so than we realize. We all want to feel important; we like to see our name in the paper. When we are with others, we try to show that we know more than the others, or if we have a talent such as a good voice, we want to show it off, even if we are a priest or psaltes in the church. Temptation urges us to show off our special skill, whether it is cooking, making candy, doing handwork, singing, or engaging in sports. Perhaps more than anything else, we are tempted by the spirit of vanity to want to be better looking or better dressed than others. If we do not succeed, we fall into the temptation of being jealous of those who are better looking or do things better than we do. The temptation to vanity is a powerful temptation which destroys our spiritual balance and hinders us from becoming spiritually united with the Body of Christ.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
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